Protea

24.05.17

Proteas are native to South Africa and belong to the Proteaceae, the same family of plants as Australian banksias, grevilleas and waratahs. This is an ancient family of flowering plants that dispersed and diversified throughout Gondwana before the supercontinent disintegrated. With about 1,600 species, it is one of the plant groups that dominate southern hemisphere flora.

Overview

Proteas vary greatly in form but are generally woody shrubs that produce medium to large-sized velvety, furry flower heads. An important protea traded around the world is the king protea (Protea cynaroides), which commonly has silvery pink bracts surrounding a dome of silvery pink florets (though selections with other colours are grown). The flower head varies in shape from a very wide inverted cone to a more narrow funnel shape. The leaves are generally large and rounded, and typically bright green. As well as using the flower in cut flower arrangements, florists may use the lower leaves in arrangements (separate to the flower).

Many protea species are cultivated for cut flowers and, while they are marketed as ‘wildflowers’ in Australia, it should be noted that they are not native to Australia. The name ‘protea’ commonly refers not only to plants in the genus Protea, but also to plants in two other genera from South Africa — Leucadendron and Leucospermum. For the purpose of this page, only the genus Protea is discussed.

All growers entering the cut flower industry are encouraged to do extensive research on the inherent risks and challenges throughout the value chain; and as proteas are a long-term investment, beginning commercial production in their third year of growth, this is particularly relevant.

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

  • Proteas are native to South Africa but are quite often incorrectly classed as Australian natives
  • Initial selection of protea species and variety is critical as they are first harvested in their third or fourth year of cultivation
  • They are susceptible to phytophthora root rot
  • Many are susceptible to post-harvest blackening of leaves which reduces their market appeal and vase life

Production status

The Australian wildflower industry (including but not solely protea) 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 protea.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Various species of protea are used for the cut flower market, and also as garden and landscape plants. As cut flowers, proteas are sold fresh or occasionally dried, as single stems or bunched, depending on the species and variety. 

Proteas are often used in presentation and hand-tied bunches; in modern, contemporary and traditional-style arrangements; and in a vast array of design styles. The individual leaves of king protea are often used for backing posies and layering in arrangements.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Protea production is concentrated in the southern coastal regions of Australia.

Soil type

All members of the Proteaceae plant family require well-drained, slightly acidic soil, pH(water) 5.0–6.0, that is low in phosphorus. Proteas thrive in a wide range of soil types but they do not like heavy clays and do not tolerate waterlogging.

Climate

Proteas prefer a mild temperate climate with low humidity. They can tolerate slight frosts but the young foliage and flowers of some species such as P.neriifolia and P.cynaroides and their hybrids may be slightly damaged.

Varieties

Protea species cultivated for cut flowers include P. cynaroides (king protea and mini king), P. neriifolia (frosted fire), P. compactaP.repens (honey protea), P.longifoliaP.eximiaP. obusifolia, P.magnifica and P. grandiceps.

There are also hybrids available, e.g. P. neriifolia x P. susannae (Pink Ice hybrids such as Candy, Christine, Kurrajong Rose, Possum Magic) and P. grandiceps and either P. lacticolor or P. longifolia (Protea Grandicolor).

There are specialist Proteaceae nurseries in several Australian states that are the best source of planting stock for the latest hybrids and cultivars.

For further information on protea varieties for cut flower production refer to the publications: What Cut Flower is that? — The essential care and handling guide for cut flower professionalsQuality specifications for king proteaQuality specifications for ‘Pink Ice’Quality specifications for Protea Grandicolor and Quality specifications for Protea repens.

Planting and crop management

The plantation site needs to be appropriately prepared for the production of proteas as they are a long-term investment. The land should be cleared three to four months prior to planting and any timber or persistent weeds removed. Deep ripping, ploughing and cultivating will be necessary to create a fine tilth. As proteas are susceptible to phytophthora root rot, potential sites should be tested for the presence of the fungus before planting, and rejected if it is present. Because phytophthora can be introduced to a ‘clean’ site, growers must take care to source planting stock from reputable suppliers and follow good hygiene practices.

Protea plantations are usually established from rooted cuttings or seedlings, and are best planted in early to mid-autumn or spring. During establishment, the plants should be protected from strong winds.

Irrigation will be required for good establishment and to maximise ongoing plant production. The planting layout will depend on the irrigation design, single plant rows are easier to manage but double plant rows make more effective use of smaller areas.

Pruning is essential, initially to shape the plant, and then on an ongoing basis for optimum plant growth and flower yield. Pruning can be timed to induce flowering to suit key markets or avoid unfavourable seasonal conditions. Removing the lower limbs can make weed and disease management easier.

Young proteas will respond to moderate levels of nitrogen but their phosphorus requirements are low.

For further information on protea planting and crop management refer to the publication New Crop Industries Handbook and Chapter 6 of the publication Getting Started in Wildflower Growing.

Weeds, pests and diseases

Weeds compete with the crop for nutrients, light and moisture, and should be controlled by mowing, the use of herbicides, cultivation and mulching. Good weed management will also contribute to plantation hygiene, and reduce refuges for insect pests.

The major insect pests of proteas are the stem boring and leaf eating weevils, black beetle and termites. In addition to the physical damage to the plants, the presence of insect pests and spiders in the harvested stems can cause quarantine issues for export markets. Birds, especially parrots, can cause serious damage in some areas.

The major disease of proteas is the root disease dieback (Phytophthora cinnamonii), and if establishing a plantation on previously affected areas, soil can and should be treated with chemical fumigants, however this can be expensive. To minimise the risk of introducing or spreading this disease, disease-free plants should be used to establish a plantation and good crop hygiene practices should be adopted. Other diseases include colletotrichum, botrytis, batcheloromyces leaf spot, bacterial leaf spot and alternaria leaf spot.

The industry body WildFlowers Australia has general advice and useful information available on pest and disease management for wildflowers. For further information on weeds, pests and diseases of proteas refer to the publication New Crop Industries Handbook and Chapter 6 of the publication Getting Started in Wildflower Growing.

Infrastructure Requirements

Irrigated agriculture and horticulture enterprises generally have compatible infrastructure to adapt to growing proteas. 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 tools such as secateurs. Hedge trimmers may also be useful.

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 to hydrate harvested product.

Harvesting & Processing

Proteas are harvested in their third or fourth year of production when flower numbers and stem length makes harvesting economic. Stems should be harvested every two to three days by hand usually early in the morning, to minimise the time when the stems and flowers may dry out or be exposed to heat.

Flowers and foliage are usually harvested using sharp secateurs and then placed directly into water and held in the shade. The stems should be cooled quickly to remove field heat and prevent the blooms from opening further. The product is then graded by stem length and the lower leaves are removed. Proteas are generally marketed fresh but some are dried or sulphur treated. Plastic sleeves may be used to protect the bracts, especially for export product and king proteas in particular. A tight sleeve holds the bloom together and makes flowers easier to pack.

Leaf blackening following harvest can be a major problem. The severity of this disorder varies between cultivars. Blackening can occur within 3–5 days of harvest and greatly reduces visual appeal and vase life. The basis of leaf blackening is not completely understood but is thought to be due to the developing flower drawing on the leaf reserves. It occurs more quickly in warmer climates and in proteas stored at warm temperatures and under low light. Holding flowers at 2–4°C may help reduce its incidence, as will keeping cut stems under continuous bright light.

Further information on harvesting and product quality of proteas is available from the publication Postharvest Handling of Australian Flowers from Australian Native Plants and Related Species – A Practical Manual.

Markets & Marketing

There is a wide range of market opportunities for wildflower growers (including but not solely protea). 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 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.

In 2010, 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 that a greater proportion of production is now 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.

The most important export markets for Australian wildflowers, foliage and native plants 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, Queensland 28%, Victoria 24%, and New South Wales 13%.

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 proteas.

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 King Protea RIRDC publication (2010)

Quality specifications for ‘Pink Ice’ RIRDC publication (2010)

Quality specifications for Protea Grandicolor (PBR) RIRDC publication (2010)

Quality specifications for Protea repens RIRDC publication (2010)

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

Growing proteas on the website of the Western Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Food (2016)

Improving profit for flower growers RIRDC publication (2004)

New Crop Industries Handbook RIRDC publication (2004)

Other resources

NSW Department of Environment & Heritage website – for information on licences and regulations for some protected and threatened native flower species

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

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

Image Gallery

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Protea crop beginning to flower

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Red protea flower

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Protea cynaroides, commonly known as king protea, is an important protea species grown for both domestic and export markets

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Protea magnifica, commonly known as queen protea

Related Publications

16.07.13

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

06.12.13

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