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Protea for flower power in South Africa

Only six plant kingdoms have been defined worldwide, the smallest being the Cape Floral Kingdom of South Africa. It is also the most diverse, with its 8,600 species exceeding even the richnesss of the Amazon Rain Forest. Locally know as fynbos, this unique vegetation of the Western Cape includes several plants of significant economic importance, including the internationally traded Proteas and Leucospermum. Others include herbal teas such as rooibos and honeybush and plants used for medicinal purposes such as buchu. Freesias, gladioli and ornithogalum have all been developed from fynbos bulbous plants.

Madiba King Proteas
credit: ARC-fynbos unit

Above all, it is the proteas that are symbolic of South Africa and their export is now significant economically and socially to many rural communities in the Western Cape. The cut flower industry in the Cape goes back 100 years but, in the past, many proteas were collected from the wild, leading to over-collection and variation in quality. Collecting flowers from the wild is not sustainable and, as the international market has demanded better quality and disease-free blooms, communities that rely on wild flower collecting ('wild crafting', as it is known locally) have been losing their share of the market.

For the last 25 years, however, the South Africa Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Fynbos Unit has been involved in collecting and conserving Proteaceae, which have been kept as living specimens in orchards. Unfortunately, germination of protea seeds is low, viability rapidly declines with storage, and in vitro techniques are not been developed for all species. And to help 'wild crafters' to sustain incomes, more recently, the ARC-Fynbos Unit has been active with several communities and individuals in training and technology transfer for modern protea cultivation, harvesting and marketing. For example, one group of five growers near Greyton were assisted with establishing orchards in 1995; their flower production is now in its fourth year and they have received a grant for the purchase and installation of a containerised cooling unit. Other groups have been given assistance to establish and expand orchards, develop business plans and integrate flower production with growing herbs.

Conservation of wild fynbos is essential for wild species to survive, but the ARC-Fynbos Genebank is vital for the preservation of unique plants with the potential to be developed as cut flower crops. Thus, it plays an essential role in maintaining genes and gene combinations that are valuable for the full exploitation of the country's floral wealth. Development of new unique cultivars provides a competitive advantage for South African growers, keeping fynbos products at the leading edge of international floriculture and markets.

The South Africa Protea Producers and Exporters Association (SAPPEX) is the umbrella body of the fynbos industry and has established a cultivar committee to oversee the selection of new plants for evaluation and the release of new cultivars. Conservation is essential to protect wild fynbosFor example, the market is demanding smaller flowers and an extended flowering season as well as thinner stems to reduce weight for air freight. At open days, ARC and SAPPEX scientists demonstrate and discuss such factors as well as flower and foliage colouring, stem length, disease resistance, successful propagation.

Overall, progress is encouraging but growers have experienced various difficulties and setbacks, ranging from invasion of orchards by alien species and veld fires destroying an orchard to problems with gaining ready access to land, funds and markets, and poor financial management of new businesses. But ARC, the farmers cooperative Rainbow Flora, the Provincial Department of Agriculture and various NGOs are working together and are confident of finding solutions to these problems.

For further information email: ARC - Roodeplaat (Western Cape) or see http://www.arc.agric.za or http://sappex.org.za/

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