Christmas Bush

24.05.17

Ceratopetalum gummiferum is a small long-lived tree that produces a profusion of bright red flowers around December — giving rise to its name, Christmas bush. It grows naturally to about 10 metres tall in moist gullies and slopes of eastern New South Wales.

Overview

By the 1880s the shrub was well established as a symbol of Christmas in the colonies. It has also been grown as a garden plant for many years. Since the 1990s, Christmas bush has become an important commercially-produced cut flower for domestic and export markets.

The availability of high-quality cultivated product has extended domestic acceptance of the flower to the whole month of December, and even longer in export markets, particularly Japan, where it is supplied from from mid-October to Christmas. Commercial production occurs from southern Queensland to Victoria, enabling supply of the product from mid-October to January or later.

The valued part of the Christmas bush, the red ‘flowers’ are in fact not flowers at all. The Christmas bush produces small white flowers in spring with petals about 3mm long. Each flower is surrounded by four or five sepals (outer bracts) that grow from 2mm to 12mm and change colour to various shades of pink and red. By early summer, the flower-like sepals are fully coloured, and make for the attractive product that are sold as Christmas bush ‘flowers’.

Both horticultural (growing, harvesting and packaging) and marketing skills are very important in the production of Christmas bush. Especially critical is the ability to schedule harvesting and marketing.

The primary requirement for the production of quality flowers is protection from hot, dry winds, from bud formation through flowering to harvest. Adequate water is also important, especially from flowering time to harvest when regular irrigation is generally required.

The wildflower industry body is WildFlowers Australia, which represents a diverse range of industry participants, including growers, buyers, wholesalers, exporters and importers, and research and extension specialists.

Facts and figures

  • The attractive red parts of the Christmas bush are sepals, that develop after the plant has flowered in spring time
  • The potential vase life of Christmas bush is significantly determined by growing conditions before harvest; mild temperatures and higher humidity give best vase life
  • Christmas bush can be dry stored for about two weeks at 6–8 °C without significant loss of vase life provided it is handled according to established postharvest procedures
  • Christmas bush flowers from mid-October in southern Queensland through to January or later in Victoria
  • To supply key markets before Christmas, areas between Gympie in the north to the Sydney basin in the south appear most suitable for production.

Production status

The Australian wildflower industry (including but not solely Christmas bush) is located mainly in Western Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and south east Queensland.

It is estimated that at least three-quarters of Australia’s wildflower production was exported; and the industry comprises 400 growers, about 50 wholesalers and exporters, and thousands of florists and supermarkets who sell the flowers within Australia. Many growers of wildflowers are part-time growers who have other business or farming interests, and they may grow one or several species of wildflower, depending on their individual circumstances.

Industry statistics do not provide grower or production information at an enterprise level for Christmas bush, although in the mid-2000s it was described as the fastest growing export crop in eastern Australia, with 100,000 plants under commercial cultivation. Cultivated Christmas bush is generally of much higher quality and has a longer vase life than wild-harvested stems, which are now mostly unsaleable.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Christmas bush is produced for the cut flower market. Primarily, branches are harvested when the flowers (sepals) are dense and rich in colour. There are several grades of Christmas bush, ranging from that just described, which is AAA+ grade and considered premium export product, through to foliage grade, which is mainly green leaf with sparse flower density. For more information see Quality Specifications for Christmas Bush.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Christmas bush grows naturally in moist gullies and slopes of coastal New South Wales, with isolated occurrences as far north as forests near Mullumbimby, Clarence Valley and northwest of Coffs Harbour and as far south as Bateman’s Bay. Most occurrences are in the central coast area, between Newcastle and Wollongong, and west to the Blue Mountains.

Commercially, Christmas bush is cultivated from the Sunshine Coast area in Queensland, south to coastal and central areas of Victoria. It has been grown commercially in the South West of Western Australia.

Flowering is affected by temperature and day length, with flowering time occurring progressively from north to south. In order to produce for the premium pre-Christmas market, the areas between Nambour in Queensland and the Sydney Basin appear most suitable. Production from the more northerly areas will usually be too early for the Sydney market, where demand is only strong for about 2-3 weeks before Christmas; however Japanese demand is good from late October and United States demand from late November.

The success of establishing and growing Christmas Bush will very much depend on the microclimate within the region in which it is planted. The plantation must be sheltered from hot winds and the ability to maintain good soil moisture is essential. The AgriFutures Australia publication Growing Christmas Bush for Cut Flowers  provides excellent details about considerations for growing regions and site selection of Christmas bush plantations.

Soil type

Christmas bush will grow on the east coast of Australia in most soil types that are well drained, but sandy soils may present problems with nutrient and water retention. Good drainage is essential, as plants are susceptible to die-back during wet years. Ideally, the soil should be slightly acidic (i.e. pH(water) 5.4–6.0). Experience to date suggests that Christmas bush is not very tolerant of saline soil or saline irrigation water.

Climate

Christmas bush grows naturally in temperate and subtropical coastal regions, where there are relatively mild summer temperatures, only mild frosts through winter and a reasonable and reliable rainfall throughout the year. The annual rainfall of these regions is generally above 1,000mm. The pattern and timing of rainfall is critical to growth and flowering. Adequate water storage will be needed for the period from mid-winter to harvest, when the plants need steady irrigation and rainfall is typically lacking, especially in the northern areas.

At the most northern locations of Christmas bush cultivation, in Queensland, flowering has been unreliable due to early summer heatwaves causing flowers and sepals to drop. Heavy rain and overcast conditions before harvest can reduce yield and colour intensity, adding to the challenge of cultivating Christmas bush in subtropical regions. However, annual plant regrowth and yield is often higher than further south.

In temperate zones where rainfall is winter dominant, such as those in New South Wales and Victoria, irrigation is necessary to ensure adequate moisture at flowering and during sepal production; however the cool summer and mild autumn of these regions suit the plant well. A major disadvantage of these areas is that the plants are generally not as vigorous as those grown in the warmer climates. The plant may be later flowering (missing the premium Christmas market) and some plants may only be harvested every second year.

The plant is relatively frost hardy once established, though heavy frosts can damage mature foliage. Damage to flower-bearing stems and death of young plants can be expected below –4 °C. An air temperature of –6 °C has been observed to cause severe burn of branches about one metre from the tip.

Varieties

The most commonly grown variety of Christmas bush is Albery’s Red. It is a compact plant, with dark red flowers that are early and free flowering. Stems of this variety are well accepted in the Japanese market and often bring the best price on the Australian market. Almost all new Christmas bush plantings are of this variety. Other varieties include:

  • Shiraz (syn. Christmas Belle), a darker red than Albery’s Red and flowers 2–4 weeks later, depending on location. Shipments are consistently well accepted by the Japanese market but its yields are not as high as Albery’s.
  • Festival, which flowers a little later and has a more pendulous and open habit with longer internodes than Albery’s Red. It has an acceptable yield and appears to be well accepted by the market. It is a darker red particularly liked by the United States market.
  • Albery’s Millennium Red, is redder than Albery’s Red, especially on the back of the sepals.
  • Silent Night and Mirrabooka are white varieties. There has been a good response from the Japanese market to trial shipments but some quality issues with flower spotting have been encountered.

A range of other colours, including pinks and orange, are available, however market demand and acceptance should be investigated before planting these varieties. The variegated foliage variety has not done well in the foliage markets.

Planting and crop management

Christmas bush requires well-drained conditions therefore plants should be established on mounds or beds that are generally 1m wide and 20–70cm high in the centre. The space between beds should allow for vehicle access, and generally ranges from 3.5–4m wide.

Seedlings are generally planted at 1-2m intervals along the beds. It is strongly recommended that clones of selected stock or propagated by a specialist nursery are used to establish the planting. Christmas bush grown from seed is highly variable in its growth, flowering characteristics and the size and colour of sepals produced, most seedlings are very inferior to the recognised varieties. The best times to plant are autumn and spring to early summer. In frost prone areas, planting during spring will enable plants to be well established before the harsh winter conditions occur. Planting through the hottest part of summer should be avoided.

Newly planted seedlings will require frequent watering for about six weeks after planting. Once established, the water requirements of Christmas bush are significant, particularly from budding to harvest. Typically, plants that are 2–3 years old may need 4L/day during summer and 2L/day or less, during winter. Plants that are six years old may require twice these rates. Irrigation requirements will vary with soil type and location. Soil moisture monitoring equipment will assist in managing irrigation effectively and efficiently. In most regions, a good supply of high quality irrigation water is essential for successful Christmas bush production.

Christmas bush can be significantly damaged by strong and/or hot winds. Plantation design should incorporate a natural or artificial windbreak. As wind protection is critical, a windbreak may have to be established several years ahead of the Christmas bush.

High levels of light are needed for Christmas bush to develop its full colour intensity. Plants should be grown in full sun where possible. Heavy shading from trees and windbreaks, mutual shading and self-shading will reduce colour intensity greatly. Proximity of large trees, especially Eucalypts, will also reduce growth by competition for water, nutrients and light.

Pruning is an important aspect of management to maintain well-shaped plants and good product quality, throughout the life of the plantation. The aim of pruning is to produce stems of the length that meet market requirements, which is generally 30-90cm. Pruning the plant to have an open vase shape will allow for vertical growth of stems, as well as allowing good light penetration. Plants in the northern growing regions will require more pruning than plants grown in southern New South Wales and Victoria.

Nutrients are best applied either dissolved in the irrigation water (fertigation) or as foliar sprays, particularly in times of high rainfall. Although the capital costs of a fertigation system are relatively high, compared with other fertiliser application methods, nutrient application can be more accurately tailored to plant requirements and efficiency is much higher; foliar application is also very efficient in getting nutrients into the plant irrespective of soil conditions and temperature. Soil testing before planting and leaf analysis on an annual basis will indicate what nutrients are required.

The AgriFutures Australia publication Growing Christmas Bush for Cut Flowers provides excellent details about plantation establishment and annual maintenance requirements.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

Weeds should be controlled at seedling establishment to reduce competition for nutrients, water and sunlight. Ongoing weed control in the rows can be achieved by using a weed mat or mulching the planting row to help suppress weed growth. Weed growth between the rows can be managed by having a competitive pasture sward planted or regular mowing to prevent seeding of unwanted species. Weed control will require some mechanical removal, generally using a brushcutter, and some herbicide use as well as mulching.

The most serious insect pest of Christmas bush are psyllids, which are small sap-sucking insects that damage foliage, and may make the end product unmarketable. Other pests include monolepta beetles, macadamia twig girdler, leaf roller and webbing caterpillar, fruit tree borer, longicorn beetle, aphids, thrips, scale and mealy bugs. Export markets have zero tolerance for the presence of insects; their discovery results in expensive fumigations. Product destined for export is dipped in insecticide as part of the packing process; this is only a last line of defence and will not replace year-round constant monitoring and timely spray applications of approved chemicals.

Good soil drainage and well-managed irrigation will minimise the risk of disease, however in some situations the plants may become susceptible to root diseases caused by organisms such as PhytophthoraRhizoctonia, Pythiumand Fusarium.

Good plantation management, including pruning, irrigation and nutrition, will keep plants in good health and less susceptible to pest and disease problems. Monitoring for pests and disease will enable action to be taken before the incursion develops into a significant problem.

Growing Christmas Bush for Cut Flowers provides more details about weed, pest and disease management.

Infrastructure Requirements

The cultivation of Christmas bush requires standard equipment for plantation maintenance such as a tractor, mower or slasher, fertiliser spreader and sprayer. An irrigation system will be required in all areas in some years and for establishment of small plants. Drippers have been a successful irrigation system for Christmas bush being economical to install and run, and minimising water usage, however they must be used at sufficient frequency to deliver water requirements.

Harvesting the stems requires sharp secateurs and a small pruning saw. Ratchet pruners and compressed air or battery operated secateurs are sometimes used, especially for pruning. However, battery secateurs should not be used during rain.

A shed will be required for handling, treating and packing the stems after harvest. A cool room will be required (or may be hired) as cut stems must be stored at 6–8°C. A forced air cooler inside the cool room will quickly cool packed boxes to correct temperature and can be built by the grower.

Another major requirement will be a delivery vehicle, preferably refrigerated, if no pick-up service is available to transport the stems to market.

Growing Christmas Bush for Cut Flowers provides more details about infrastructure and equipment required to operate a Christmas bush plantation.

Harvesting & Processing

Harvest time will be determined by growing location:

  • Queensland coast — late October to late November
  • New South Wales north coast  — early November to mid-December
  • cooler and higher altitude areas of New South Wales north coast, New South Wales central coast and Blue Mountains — late November to Christmas
  • New South Wales south coast and Victoria — late January to early March.

Stems are removed from the bush, using hand-operated tools, at lengths of 30-90cm, depending on the market for which the product is destined. Christmas bush differs from many flower products in terms of when it is ready to harvest – time to harvest and quality depend largely on the flower density, which is determined by the density of the flower mass and the ratio of flowers to foliage. Stems are harvested once most of the flower masses are red (and 3% or less of young flowers at the very ends of the stems are still white and immature). There is little additional development of flowers after harvest.

Postharvest life is maximised by preventing the product from drying out and minimising exposure to heat. Christmas bush is best harvested in the coolest part of the day, the stems placed straight into buckets of clean potable water or a reputable commercial postharvest solution, and the cut stems placed in the shade. The cut stems should be moved to a cool, shaded packing area as soon as possible and their temperature reduced to below 15°C within an hour and to below 10°C within two hours.

The harvested material is graded to meet market specifications, dipped in an insecticide and fungicide solution for better product life and to meet export requirements, and then packed into plastic sleeves for presentation and easier packing into boxes for shipping. Size of the boxes varies according to market requirements.

Growing Christmas Bush for Cut Flowers and Postharvest Handling of Australian Flowers from Australian Native Plants and Related Species provide more details about postharvest management of wildflowers.

Markets & Marketing

The worldwide production of Australian and South African wildflowers (including but not solely Christmas bush) is significant, but Australia’s share is believed to be about 10% of the total. While accurate industry statistics are not available, the Australian wildflower industry is believed to have 10–15% share of the domestic market.

There is a wide range of market opportunities for wildflower growers. Markets can be local, regional, national or international. Each has its own range of management requirements.

At the local level, wildflowers can be sold to local florists, farm or roadside stalls, farmers’ markets, restaurants, motels and resorts. Ideally, the farm will be located within an hour’s drive of these customers, and deliveries can be made twice a week. Regular supply and excellent service will be critical to maintain the market.

Individually or in cooperative arrangements, growers may sell to florists that require a year-round supply of a variety of lines. Flowers need to be packed in flower boxes and delivered direct to florists over a large geographical area. Setting up an effective transport network is critical, as is keeping in close contact with customers about orders and payments.

If the flowers are produced close to a capital city, there is the opportunity to sell at flower markets, such as the Sydney Flower Market at Flemington or the National Flower Centre at the Melbourne Markets. Growers may sell their product from a stall at the market, engage an agent to sell their product or sell to a wholesaler.

Growing for export requires careful planning, based on thorough market research and an export marketing plan. Some export advisers recommend that growers learn how to sell flowers on the domestic market successfully, before taking on the export market. Only top-quality product should be exported, therefore the farm production system will need an excellent quality control system. Few growers are large enough to meet these requirements alone, which has given rise to the formation of grower co-operatives that allow several smaller producers to market their product together and thereby gain more power in the marketplace.

Excellent information and advice on understanding markets for Australian wildflowers is contained in the publication Getting Started in Wildflower Growing.

The marketing of Christmas bush is driven by its historic demand as a flower sourced at Christmas time. There is a strong demand on the local market for the cut flowers immediately before Christmas, but prices drop dramatically just afterwards. The industry has suggested changing the name of the product to ‘festival bush’ to extend the profitable period of sales. Opportunities for extended supply have improved with high-quality flowers now in demand before Japanese New Year and after Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November) in the United States of America. Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day are also suitable targets for late product in Asia and the USA.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

The greatest risk associated with cut flower production is not researching the enterprise sufficiently before investing and establishing the business. Extensive research should be carried out on what species (and varieties to grow) and into which market/s the flowers will be sold. Equally important to market research, is gaining a clear understanding of the personal attributes needed to be a successful flower grower and to operate a profitable flower-growing business; and a good understanding on capital investment and time to earn returns on investment. Chapters 1 and 2 of the publication Getting Started in Wildflower Growing provide excellent guidelines for working through these considerations.

Once the business is established, many of the risks and challenges of cut flower production are associated with markets and marketing. These include understanding market requirements and volumes; competition from cheaper product available on the export market; unfavourable exchange rates; judging demand and securing orders prior to harvest; and oversupply of product driving down prices so that returns to the grower are less than the cost of production.

While excellent horticultural management will go a long way to achieving consistent flower quality, there are several potential risks (weather, pests and disease) that can only be managed to a limited extent; though good managers will be better prepared to cope with these. Crop damage, especially close to harvest time, can significantly reduce the number of stems suitable for selling and therefore the season’s income.

Logistical challenges and risks are faced when supplying flowers to florists. The flowers need to be delivered directly over a large geographical area. Therefore, setting up an effective transport network is critical, as is keeping in close contact with customers about orders and payments.

Regulatory considerations

Some Australian native wildflower species are protected by law and state and territory government authorities administer legislation restricting the commercial use of these species. For some species of Australian native wildflower a licence or permit is needed to pick, trade in and sometimes grow the species. It is recommended that you contact your state authority for details of the regulations, which may change from time to time.

In addition to state and territory government regulations, the Australian Government requires that growers and exporters have permits to export certain native flower products. For more information on export permits, visit the Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.

Publications

Publications/information

Emerging animal and plant industries: Their value to Australia RIRDC report (2014)

What Cut Flower is that? The essential care and handling guide for cut flower professionals RIRDC publication (2013)

Wildflower Irrigation Handbook RIRDC publication (2013)

Growing Christmas Bush for Cut Flowers RIRDC publication (2012)

Getting Started in Wildflower Growing RIRDC publication (2012)

Improved Market Access for Australian Wildflowers through Ecolabelling RIRDC publication (2012)

Postharvest Handling of Australian Flowers from Australian Native Plants and Related Species – A Practical Manual RIRDC publication (2010)

Improved Export Market Access for Australian Wildflowers through Integrated Pest Management RIRDC publication (2009)

Improving profit for flower growers RIRDC publication (2004)

Quality Specifications for Christmas Bush RIRDC publication (2010)

New Crop Industries Handbook RIRDC publication (2004)

Industry Bodies

WildFlowers Australia – represents the wildflower industry, including growers, wholesalers, exporters and importers, flower and foliage buyers, research and extension specialists and plant growers

Image Gallery

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A christmas bush plantation ready to harvest

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Display of high quality christmas bush

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Sleeved christmas bush ready for sale

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Bunches of christmas bush at markets

Related Publications

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What Cut Flower is That? The essential care and handling guide for cut flower professionals

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Wildflower Irrigation Handbook

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Growing Christmas Bush for Cut Flowers

16.07.13

Getting Started in Wildflower Growing - How to grow native Australian and South African species for the cut flower market