Flannel flower

24.05.17

Flannel flowers (Actinotus helianthi) have predominantly white, cream or greenish coloured ‘flowers’, that are velvety to touch and look like daisies. Flannel flowers are members of the Apiaceae plant family, which also includes carrots, celery and parsnips. There are approximately 18 species of Actinotus worldwide, with 14 occurring in Australia and one in New Zealand, a few of which have similar flowers; however they are small annual heaths, with no vase-life.

Overview

The Sydney flannel flower (Actinotus helianthi) is commercially cultivated as a cut-flower and also as a garden plant. There are more than 50 different wild variations of flannel flower, with differences in length of stem, size of bloom, number of blooms, frost tolerance, and flowering season. It occurs naturally from central and south east Queensland (Carnarvon and Isla Gorges) down to the south coast of New South Wales and out to western slopes of northern New South Wales (the Pilliga Scrub).

Complemented by its soft silvery grey-blue foliage, flannel flower is well suited to the cut-flower market as it is one of the few soft Australian wildflowers, which works well in floral design by itself, with other wildflowers, or combined with exotic flowers such as roses and lilies. It has proven to be popular for weddings and speciality floral designs. Flannel flower is sold in a variety of stem lengths, from 25cm all the way up to 80cm.

Importantly for cut flowers, flannel flowers have a long vase life, sometimes up to three weeks if the cold chain is maintained

Flannel flower was prolific in the bushland around the Sydney basin in the 1950’s, and was at that time a regular cut-flower and was represented on tea towels, china and needlepoint. Commercial cultivation commenced in the early 1990s when the flower became popular in Japan.

Research on the species increased after 1995 and led to substantial improvements in the understanding of propagation and cultivation of the plant and increased production of the flower as a crop. There are now a number of varieties grown all year round undercover providing superior product to field-grown flannel flower. Strong demand for high-quality product exists both domestically and overseas in Japan, the United States and Europe.

Flannel flower is best treated as a three year crop. The biggest barrier to date has been obtaining the needed quantity and quality seedlings, with only a few propagators in operation in Australia. Major problems encountered in growing this crop involve soil drainage and root diseases, but these can be overcome by growing plants in containers in simple greenhouses or under crop covers.

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 Sydney flannel flower (Actinotus helianthi) has more than 50 variations and is the only species that is commercially cultivated
  • Flannel flower is a versatile cut flower, attractive as a feature flower or as a popular filler, mixed with wildflowers and also with soft exotics
  • Flannel flowers are cultivated commercially throughout the natural range of the plant, but particularly in coastal areas of southern Queensland, and New South Wales
  • Flannel flowers may be grown in the ground in raised beds in well-drained soil; higher quality blooms are obtained by growing them undercover in pots filled with growing media to ensure drainage and moisture levels are optimised
  • Botanically speaking, the petals of the flower are not actually petals, but leaf-like structures called bracts. These surround the central dome which is a mass of individual tiny florets

Production status

It is estimated that there are 30 growers of Flannel flower in Australia, and the majority grow the flower as just one of 5–20 different wildflower crops.

Looking at the overall industry, Australian wildflowers are grown mainly in Western Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and south east Queensland. Industry statistics do not provide grower or production information at an enterprise level for flannel flowers, though it is a small fraction of this amount.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Flannel flower is a versatile cut flower, attractive as a feature flower, in a bunch on its own, or as a popular filler in floral arrangements. There are several existing varieties that are popular as pot plants and garden plants.

Production Requirements

While flannel flowers are produced as open-air crops in the ground or in containers, commercially appealing selections are increasingly grown under rain shelters, to maintain high flower quality and yield, and therefore profits. An intensive production system, typical of year-round flowering cultivars, requires raised benches and pots, if the flowers are not grown in beds, and a rain shelter or greenhouse structure to protect the plants from the weather.

The machinery and equipment required for the cultivation of flannel flowers will depend on the production system. Field production systems will require standard horticultural equipment for ongoing management and property maintenance, such as a tractor, mower or slasher, fertiliser spreader and sprayer; as well as cultivation equipment.

If the flowers are produced under a rain shelter, the larger equipment will not be required. Regardless of flannel flower variety grown, planting, weeding, pruning and harvesting require extensive labour around the plant. Many growers place the potted flannel flowers on raised benches to improve drainage and air circulation, as well as making crop management more ergonomic.

An irrigation system and soil moisture monitoring equipment may be required in areas where rainfall is not sufficient or reliable at stages of critical growth and is particularly vital in a greenhouse or covered crop that does not receive rainfall.

Harvesting the stems requires good thin-nosed secateurs, and a range of equipment will be required for bunching, grading and packaging.

Buildings or structures needed include a greenhouse or rain shelter to grow planting stock, a vermin-proof shed for handling, treating and packing the stems after harvest, at least one cool room and office facilities.

Another major requirement will be a delivery vehicle, preferably refrigerated, if there is no pick-up service available to transport the stems to market. If exporting, the vehicle must be large enough for pallet loads of boxed flowers.

The publication Growing Flannel Flowers for the Cut Flower Market provides more details about infrastructure and equipment required to operate a flannel flower enterprise.

Harvesting & Processing

To optimise financial returns to the business, the crop must be picked when at the correct maturity stage for the chosen market, and processed, packed and delivered to the customer with minimal loss of quality. A strong, healthy plant of the seasonally flowering form can produce 8-10 stems in its first year, 15-25 in its second year and 10-15 in its third. In contrast, the continually flowering semi-dwarf clones can produce at least 60 flowers a year (though smaller in length and in bloom size).

Clones are used for commercial cultivation flower mostly from August to January, usually with a large peak in spring. As future selections and varieties become available, along with an expansion of growing regions, the flowering period will become staggered throughout the country. As the name suggests, year-round flowering varieties can be harvested for much of the year, although supplies may be low at times.

Stems are cut as long as possible without cutting into the old stem. Domestic markets require stem length to be greater than 40cm (except for bouquet bunches) and export markets require a minimum length of 60–80cm.

Harvest must be managed to maximise the postharvest life of the stem.  Flowers should be cut in cool conditions. The stems are cut from the plant using secateurs, immediately placed into buckets of clean cool water and the buckets kept in the shade while picking continues. It is important to keep the stems cool and well hydrated to decrease respiration rate and water loss to maximise quality and vase life.

After harvest, stems should be moved to a shaded and cooled packing area for grading and bunching within an hour of cutting. The processed flowers are then cooled to 2–4°C by either forced-air cooling for 20–30 minutes (if boxed) or held overnight in a cool room (if in buckets).

Alternatively, the field heat may be first removed from flowers by cooling immediately to 10°C in buckets of solutions, on entry to the packing shed; and the flowers are then graded and bunched and cooled to 2–4°C by either forced-air cooling (if boxed) or holding overnight in a cool room. If necessary, flowers can be held at 2–4°C (but not colder) in high relative humidity (95% of higher) for up to three days.

Flannel flowers destined for export will require disinfecting to remove insects.

Bunched flowers are usually sold in sleeves that protect the flowers, improve appearance and make packing easier. Sleeved bunches are packed into boxes for transport. After packaging, flowers need to be cooled to 2–4°C before transport. If flowers are to be transported for a long distance, a refrigerated vehicle that can hold the flowers at 2–4°C should be used.

The document Quality Specifications for Flannel Flower provides detailed and photographic guidelines on picking times, grading and post-harvest treatment. Chapters 11 and 12 of Growing Flannel Flowers for the Cut Flower Market also provides good detail on harvesting and postharvest handling of flannel flower crops.

Markets & Marketing

The worldwide production of Australian and South African wildflowers is significant, but as at 2012, Australia’s share was 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.

The domestic market for flannel flowers has been described as small but having significant potential for expansion. Market prices for flowers can vary considerably according to volume available, time of year and bunch quality. Market conditions and prices can change rapidly and unexpectedly. In general, flowers produced that are of high quality with tall stems and large blooms return much higher prices, as do flowers that are produced out of season, in greenhouses.

There are a wide range of market opportunities for wildflower growers. Markets can be local, regional, national or international and 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 a stronger presence in the marketplace.

It was estimated that at least three-quarters of Australia’s wildflower production was exported. However, due to unfavourable foreign exchange rates and the challenges of growing and marketing, many industry experts believe a greater proportion of production is sold on the domestic market. Reliable industry statistics are not available so the true number of growers is unknown, particularly as many are part-time growers with other business or farming interests, who may grow one or several species of wildflowers, depending on their individual circumstances. Most flower wholesalers include wildflowers as part of their range and several specialist flower exporters focus on wildflower products. There are thousands of florists and supermarkets who sell the flowers within Australia.

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

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 of capital investment and time to earn returns on investment. Chapters 1 and 2 of 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 diseases) 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.

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 wildflowers, 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.

The flannel flower is a protected native plant in New South Wales, and a licence is required to grow it for commercial purposes. In New South Wales, the Protected and threatened plants in the cut flower industry management plan includes details of licensing for flannel flower growers. Licences are available from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

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 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)

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

Growing Flannel Flowers for the Cut Flower Market RIRDC publication (2012)

Getting Started in Wildflower Growing RIRDC publication (2012)

Quality Specifications for Flannel Flower RIRDC publication (2010)

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)

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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Purpose-built greenhouse for the production of Flannel flowers

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Commercial production of Flannel flowers

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Flannel flower seedlings being grown in a greenhouse

Related Publications

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

18.02.13

Wildflower Irrigation Handbook

18.02.13

Improved Market Access for Australian Wildflowers through Ecolabelling

16.07.13

Growing Flannel Flowers for the Cut Flower Market