This truly indigenous South African product means a good deal more than emblems. It’s worthwhile cultivating them, although the process is tough and difficult.
Fynbos refers to plants growing in the mountains of the Western Cape province in South Africa. They usually appear grey and uninteresting when one drives past, but they have significant economic value to the province.
Flower pickers realised their economic potential at an early stage and established the tradition of trading flowers in the streets of Cape Town. The beautiful flowers didn’t stay in Cape Town: The first white everlastings (Syncarpha vestita) were exported by ship to Germany in 1886. These everlastings were harvested in the plains surrounding Elim.
A substantial quantity of exported fynbos is still collected in the mountains and plains of the Western Cape, maybe more correctly known as the Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK). The CFK covers about 90 000 km² and stretches from Nieuwoudtville in the northwest to Grahamstown in the east. It is mainly confined to nutrient-poor soils derived from Table Mountain sandstone.
It hosts about 8 600 plant species, 68% of which are endemic to the area and not found anywhere else in the world. This unique quality has been captured in a wide range of commercial ventures ranging from floriculture, ornamental plants, beverages, medicinals, cosmetics and food crops to crafts, thatching and also tourism.
Fynbos with floricultural potential can either be used as dried and processed flowers and foliage or as fresh cut flowers and foliage. These products can either be a uniform product carefully packed in a specially designed flower box or shelf-ready bouquets containing various flowers and foliage.
Also read: Manage pitfalls before growing proteas
Although the dried flower industry originated during the 18th century, its commercial potential was only recognised during the mid 1950s, with the harvesting of dried flower heads of Protea repens (sugar bush) after a fire.
Flowers and other products for this industry are primarily harvested from the wild during winter and spring, but this is unfortunately not always a sustainable practice, because of increasing pressure on the natural environment from agricultural development, alien plants, an increase in demand for produce and too frequent fires.
The dried flower industry relies on about 25 plant species to produce more than 60 dried products, since a single flower or seed head can be transformed into a variety of products. The most popular plant material is the foliage of Leucadendron (cone bush), cones from female Leucadendron plants, Protea inflorescences (buds and open heads), Protea rosettes formed from the flower receptacle, reeds, Brunia and everlastings.
Since the humble beginnings of the fresh flower industry on the streets of Cape Town, fynbos has grown to an international commodity. Today the industry uses many plant species, including Erica, Brunia, ferns and reeds, but is dominated by Protea Leucospermum (pincushions) and Leucadendron (cone bushes) from the Proteaceae family.
Proteus was the mythological Greek god who could see into the future and always spoke the truth. He could also change into numerous animate or inanimate forms. Carl Linnaeus, a botanist, probably had the remarkable variability within the protea family in mind when he assigned them the name Proteaceae. About 1 400 species are recognised in this family, of which more than 330 are found in the Cape Floral Kingdom.
Today, cultivation of Proteaceae for the production of fresh cut flowers occurs on a large scale, although some products are still harvested in large quantities from nature. This is, however, not a sustainable practice for supplying high-quality flowers to international markets, since the South African floricultural industry is competing with other traditional cut flower products (such as roses and carnations) and other Proteaceae-producing countries. The industry has to adhere to the market’s demands and standards: superior quality, superior packaging and traceability.
Other countries producing Proteaceae include Australia, New Zealand, China, Italy, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, USA, Israel, Canary Islands, Portugal, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. Although the main Proteaceae cut flower production areas in South Africa are confined to the Cape Floral Kingdom, they are not limited to these areas.
The Proteaceae fresh flower industry developed from a flower being picked in nature to a flower being picked in a cultivated plantation, through a process referred to as domestication. Originally, all cultivation relied on seed as propagation material, but today clonally propagated material is being used, often from Plant Breeder’s Right protected cultivars originating from a breeding programme.
Cultivars and clonally propagated plantations result in uniform flowers from a plantation that flower in a desirable market window. Cultivars need to be selected for their suitability to sea transport, which is much cheaper than air freight. Unfortunately, not all fynbos product types can be cultivated economically.
How does a producer decide which type, variety or cultivar to plant in order to address market trends and demands? What is the current popular taste and how quickly is it going to change? Which varieties are currently selling?
Unfortunately, the information a producer needs to make decisions is difficult to obtain for the fresh flower fynbos industry. One solution is to evaluate a range of products and select those suitable for your needs. Other factors to consider are the suitability of your farm for fynbos production, the occurrence of frost, soil chemistry, water, any soil-borne diseases and distance to the export port.
Fortunately, Proteaceae cut flowers are a niche product and with good marketing, may not be as sensitive to fashion trends as other commodity flowers.
Remember, though, that a cut flower product is expected to be perfect, because it’s bought purely for the visual effect!
- This article was written by Louisa Blomerus and first appeared in Farming SA.