Leucospermum (cut flowers)

24.05.17

Leucospermum, native to South Africa, is a member of the Proteaceae plant family, which is an ancient family of flowering plants that dispersed and diversified throughout Gondwana before the supercontinent disintegrated. With about 1600 species, Proteaceae is one of the plant groups that dominate the southern hemisphere flora.

Overview

The leucospermum is a spreading shrub that produces ball-shaped flowers at the end of long woody stems. The stems support long, narrow leaves that are compactly arranged close to the stem. Leucospermum flowers are commonly called ‘pincushions’ or ‘firewheels’ due to their rounded, symmetrical flower heads, which have masses of styles, or ‘pins’, sticking outwards. Leucospermums typically have a vase life of around 18 days.

While Leucospermums are marketed as ‘wildflowers’ in Australia, they are not native to Australia.

Growers entering the cut flower industry are encouraged to do extensive research on the inherent risks and challenges throughout the value chain. As leucospermums are a long-term investment and commercial production begins in their second year of growth, this is particularly relevant.

The wildflower industry is considered a mature industry in Australia. It has an active research & development (R&D) program that assists industry members develop better production techniques, works towards industry-wide standards and identifies marketing opportunities. The wildflower industry, including leucospermum producers, is represented by 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

  • Wildflower cultivation can achieve better returns per unit area of land and per unit of water for irrigation, than many other agricultural enterprises
  • Growing wildflowers generally requires fewer inputs of pesticides, fertiliser and water than growing traditional flowers such as roses, carnations and annuals
  • Leucospermums are native to South Africa
  • Several species and hybrids of leucospermum are used as cut flowers, and may be marketed as ‘pincushions’ or ‘firewheels’
  • Leucospermums typically have a vase life of around 18 days
  • Leucospermum are susceptible to phytophthora root rot
  • The heads snap easily from the stem, so they need to be handled with care and harvested at the correct stage of opening

Production status

The Australian wildflower industry is located mainly in Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and south east Queensland.

There are no industry statistics about growers or production information at an enterprise level for leucospermum.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Leucospermum are used as cut flowers for their ‘pincushion’ flowering heads and are suitable for a wide range of wildflower designs.

The unusual flowers provide a focus for arrangements and the wide range of bright colours enhance traditional and tropical displays.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Leucospermums are produced commercially in southern coastal regions of Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Soil type

Leucospermum species grow on nutrient deficient acidic, sandstone-derived soils. However, they adapt to a wide range of soil types within a narrow range of pH(water) (5.0–6.0) and fertility, so long as the drainage is good.

Climate

Leucospermums prefer a Mediterranean climate, with winter-dominant rainfall and dry, warm–hot summers. Frost will damage the foliage and flowers and if severe, may kill leucospermum plants.

Varieties

Commercially cultivated species of leucospermum for cut flowers include cultivars and hybrids of L. glabrumL. lineareL. patersonii, and L. cordifolium.

For further information on Leucospermum varieties for cut flower production refer to the RIRDC publications What Cut Flower is that? The essential care and handling guide for cut flower professionalsQuality Specifications for Leucospermum ‘Hi Gold’ and Quality Specifications for Leucospermum ‘Tango’.

Planting and crop management

The planting rows for leucospermums should be cultivated, or deep ripped if required, mounded to ensure good drainage if necessary, and mulched with organic or non-organic material. Irrigation lines should be installed before mulching. Leucospermums are susceptible to wind, and windbreaks should be established well before planting the leucospermums.

Planting is best done from late April to early May, well before the winter period reduces the soil temperature. Planting material should be sourced from reputable nurseries and it is important to ensure plants are disease-free.

Irrigation is critical for the establishment of leucospermum plants, and to produce maximum yield throughout the productive life of the plantation.

Leucospermums respond to a well-balanced fertiliser program. Moderate nutrient application rates are essential to produce stems with sufficient length, the right thickness and quality flowers. Fertiliser may be applied by top dressing or by fertigation through the irrigation lines.

Leucospermums need to be regularly pruned to improve yields, produce high quality blooms on long strong stems, extend the commercial life of the bush, improve the plant structure, achieve better disease control, and improve the manageability and harvesting of the plants.

For further information on planting and crop management of leucospermums refer to the publications New Crop Industries Handbook and Getting Started in Wildflower Growing. For information on irrigation refer to the RIRDC publication Wildflower Irrigation Handbook.

Weeds, pests and diseases

Weed control must start well before planting. Once the crop is established, weed control options available include careful application of knockdown herbicides, hand weeding around the plants and in-row mulching.

Phytophthora root rot is a significant problem for leucospermums and control of this root rot disease is difficult. Prevention is the best option through selecting disease free planting sites and plants, effective drainage and keeping the plants as healthy as possible. Good hygiene practices should also be followed.

The industry body WildFlowers Australia has general advice and useful information available on pest and disease management. For further information on weeds, pests and diseases of leucospermums refer to the RIRDC publications New Crop Industries Handbook and Getting Started in Wildflower Growing.

Infrastructure Requirements

Irrigated agriculture and horticulture enterprises generally have compatible infrastructure to adapt to growing leucospermum. Infrastructure and equipment for planting and crop management include machinery for site preparation, tractors for mowing and towing flower trailers, fertiliser spreaders, pesticide application equipment and irrigation infrastructure and equipment.

Harvesting and pruning equipment may include various hand picking tools, hedge trimmers, and/or machinery adapted or designed for mechanical pruning and harvesting.

For processing and preparing stems for market, the basic equipment and infrastructure required is a packing shed with a cool room and facilities to apply appropriate fungicide and insecticide treatments to the harvested stems.

A reliable source of high-quality water for irrigation will be required to achieve maximum production and hydrate harvested product.

Harvesting & Processing

Leucospermums are hand harvested when the plants are around two to three years old. Generally, they are picked during the coolest part of the day.

The flowers are quite fragile and susceptible to water stress. It is therefore important to harvest them when there are only few pins sticking out and to place them in water directly after picking. It is easy to break off the flowering heads so the stems must be handled with care.

On return to the packing shed, the flowers should be cooled quickly to remove the field heat and to stop the blooms from opening further. The stems are then graded and sorted, and may be bunched (depending on flower head size and market demand) before being packed in tissue paper or placed in plastic sleeves, which prevent the flowers from both drying out and interlocking.

Flowers for export may need to be dipped in fungicide or fumigated.

For further information on harvesting and processing of leucospermums refer to the publications Postharvest Handling of Australian Flowers from Australian Native Plants and Related Species – A Practical ManualQuality Specifications for Leucospermum ‘Hi Gold’Quality Specifications for Leucospermum ‘Tango’and New Crop Industries Handbook.

Markets & Marketing

There is a wide range of market opportunities for wildflower (including but not solely leucospermum) 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 and economic 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.

The most important export markets for Australian wildflowers and foliage are Japan (36%), the Netherlands (30%), the United States (16%), Germany (6%) and Canada (4%). Western Australia accounted for 34% of the total value of exports in this period, Queensland 28%, Victoria 24%, and New South Wales 13%.

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. The industry body, WildFlowers Australia, offers a range of contact information for businesses along the supply chain including nurseries, growers, wholesalers and exporters.

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 that 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

Regulatory considerations include those that apply to all Australian farming operations, including laws applying to chemical use and management, occupational health and safety and transport (including machinery movements).

There are no regulatory considerations specific to growing leucospermum.

Publications

Publications/information

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

Getting Started in Wildflower Growing – How to grow native Australian and South African species for the cut flower market RIRDC publication (2013)

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)

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

Quality Specifications for Leucospermum ‘Hi Gold’ RIRDC publication (2010)

Quality Specifications for Leucospermum ‘Tango’ RIRDC publication (2010)

New Crop Industries Handbook RIRDC Publication (2004)

Improving profit for flower growers RIRDC publication (2004)

Other resources

Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources – for information on exporting agricultural products

Flower Association of Queensland Inc – Queensland industry organisation

Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority – for information on the use of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture

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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Leucospermum packed with shredded paper

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Leucospermum in production (source Ross Worrall NSW DPI)

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