Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Proteus is the mythological Greek god who could change into numerous forms. It therefore comes as no surprise that due to the great variety in the Proteaceae, one of the Southern Hemisphere’s most prominent plant families, it was named after him.

A unique industry

In total, 330 species are found only in the Cape Floral Region, making the southern tip of Africa a unique floral hot spot. By utilising some of this diversity, South Africa has grown into one of the leading global producers of fynbos cut flowers.

Since the first commercial cultivation of king proteas on AC Buller’s farm on the outskirts of Stellenbosch in 1910, the industry has developed into an international role-player, consisting of cultivation and veld harvesting sections:

  • The veld-harvested products are obtained from the naturally occurring stands within the Western and Eastern Cape, spanning approximately 200 000ha.
  • The cultivated product is harvested from roughly 1 000ha planted mostly in the Western Cape.

Producing a niche product such as protea cut flowers, presents certain challenges to growers and exporters alike. The most limiting factor of the local protea export industry is the phytosanitary risks posed by the presence of insects inside the flowers, originating mostly from the surrounding natural vegetation. Other challenges include droughts, wildfires, urbanisation and global economic crises, such as the one experienced in 2009.

Karien Bezuidenhout, manager at Cape Flora SA (CFSA), answers some questions regarding key aspects of the fynbos cut flower industry.

Read more about the vital role of bees with pollination here.

Why produce fynbos cut flowers?

“It is fairly labour-intensive, as harvesting practices are not mechanised like in other agricultural activities. Therefore, there is an opportunity to add jobs to the labour market. It is a young industry with potential for growth. Our biodiversity provides numerous products waiting to be developed in a sound and sustainable way. The exchange rate makes exporting lucrative, but the local market also provides opportunities.

“Fynbos cut flowers are produced along the coast from Vanrhynsdorp to Port Elizabeth, as well as at a few locations in KwaZulu-Natal. The main criteria for production area selection is that it should be frost-free and the soil should be well drained. “The wild stands of fynbos are an integral part of biodiversity which supports insect biodiversity. Cultivated fynbos also contributes in that the pincushions carry copious amounts of pollen, acting as a source of food for the bees and creating the potential to produce fynbos-based honey products. However, cultivated fynbos flowers do not require bees for pollination, as fruit would.”

Is the local market expected to grow?

“In my opinion, yes. People will always celebrate special occasions, such as weddings and birthdays, and flowers are always in demand. The advantage of fynbos cut flowers, is that it is so different from traditional cut flowers, making it a sure choice for those looking for something unique. Its long vase life also gives the consumer a sense of value for money.

“Unfortunately, CFSA doesn’t have reliable figures for consumption, but it seems like the local market is growing quite rapidly. Some producers find that they can get an equal price on the local market at Multiflora to what the export price would be. The local consumer has also become familiar with and fond of fynbos.”

  • Trends for the coming years: “Bouquets sold to retailers seem to be growing fast, and blushing bride (Serruria florida) and Arctic ice protea (white king protea, Protea cynaroides) are rather sought after.”
  • Corporate social responsibility: “CFSA has a significant number of members who form part of the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (SIZA), a platform for ethical and environmental sustainable trade. As the industry association, CFSA will also be joining SIZA early in 2017 to show our commitment to this crucial principal in business. There has also been a serious effort from the Flower Valley Conservation Trust (FVCT) – with endorsement from CFSA – to develop the Sustainable Harvesting Programme (SHP) for the veld harvesting sector of the fynbos industry. The SHP addresses both environmental and labour issues within this informal sector of the indigenous flora industry.”

Read more about agriculture in the Karoo here.

Handling aspects highlighted

“For any cut flowers, maintaining the cold chain is critical. Flowers need to be processed and cooled as soon as possible. Research has shown that the vase life of certain cultivars can be extended by placing the flowers in a sugar pulsing solution at harvest – something to be considered at the packing shed.

“Leaf blackening is a major challenge for proteas. The leaves on the flower stem are healthy and green at harvest, but turn brown-black within days. Some cultivars are more prone to this postharvest disorder and extensive research efforts are underway to control this problem. The fynbos industry recently embarked on using sea instead of airfreight for selected products, and a prolonged transport period can be up to three weeks, requiring special attention to pre- and postharvest handling protocols. Together with the Postharvest Innovation Programme (PHI) supported by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (dtic), CFSA has invested in research to address sea freight requirements.

“We are dealing with a perishable product, so a shorter travel time is always an advantage. Flowers should be transported as soon as possible after harvest to freighting agents situated at airports or harbours, reaching destinations with minimum delay.”

“Quality issues can arise both with straight-stem exports and with bouquets. The added complexity of bouquets centres around the mix of products, which may have different cold chain and handling requirements. For instance, roses and Brunia stems within one bouquet may react differently to storage temperature, exposure to ethylene or a postharvest vase life extension solution. However, with researched information to guide the producer regarding the product requirement and handling protocol, and if a quality product is used, these unique bouquets can be exported successfully.”

Read more about the new Plant Breeder Act here.

Advice for newcomers

“Fynbos farming is a long-term investment, just like any other horticultural crop. Plants takes a few years to come into full production, and during that time the producer must be able to continue investing and surviving. Some major advances have been made in respect of exciting varieties to be offered to the market, and in providing producers with the correct production and postharvest management strategies.

“Still, it is a young industry with a steep learning curve ahead to catch up with long-established horticultural industries. Fortunately, we can learn from them and CFSA supports all growers and exporters, not leaving newcomers to their own devices.” – Carin Venter, Plaas Media

For further information, contact Karien Bezuidenhout, manager at Cape Flora SA, on 021 870 2900 or karien@hortgro.co.za. Visit www.capeflorasa.co.za to learn more.