Australia’s unique native flowers have potential as new and exciting products worldwide for cut flower and ornamental plant markets. But turning that potential into commercial success is not easy.
Bettina Gollnow, Comms & Extension Manager at WildFlowers Australia, writes all about the challenges in FloraCulture International, June 2022.
“Several private and publicly funded breeding projects have undergone initiation in recent decades, but profitable successes have been few. Many Australian plants are woody shrubs or trees that take years to flower, so a breeding programme may run for over 20 years before commercially successful new cultivars result.
Many species are difficult to propagate, have poorly understood breeding mechanisms or can’t successfully be crossed with closely related species, making breeding even harder.
Once started, long-term financial support is vital to ensure such programmes can achieve their full potential by allowing the progeny of various crosses to be evaluated and crossed again and again; this has been difficult to secure.
Some 15 years ago, a different model was proposed to develop a novel flowering pot plant and cut flower products together. The key has been to link a team of specialist plant breeders with commercial partners who provide funding and introduce the resulting new varieties into the market.
The plant development team is based at the Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority (Kings Park) in Perth, Western Australia (WA). Kings Park has an international reputation for scientific research, leading horticulture, conservation and public education. It is a biodiversity hot spot where many unique plants have evolved.
Senior plant breeder, Digby Growns, has led the breeding projects for many years, firstly at the WA Department of Agriculture. Before moving to Kings Park, he spent 12 years developing new varieties of waxflowers (Chamelaucium). Since 2007 a breeding programme has focused on the iconic WA plant genera, including kangaroo paws, wax flowers, Boronia, flowering gums, Grevilleas and Scaevola. Growns is supported by other plant breeders, research scientists and nursery technicians with extensive skills and knowledge in breeding and growing Australian native plants.
The commercial partners provide long-term funding, conduct market trials and take care of variety protection under plant breeders’ rights, propagation by licensed nurseries and marketing.
Different partners have come on board for various other breeding projects. The partners include Helix Australia (Waxflower, Boronia), Ramm Botanicals (Kangaroo Paws), Benara Nursery (Grevillea) and ManukaLife (Leptospermum).
A small group of growers are licensed to grow each crop, and each pays royalties to fund the programme.
This arrangement spreads the risks and costs of developing and marketing new products between the breeders, growers and commercial partners, achieving better returns for all and building an income stream to fund new product development.
Licensed growers can be located in Australia and overseas, thereby supplying a range of markets directly or counter-seasonally.
For pot plants, royalties are paid per plant. The mechanism to fund each cut flower programme is end point royalties, where an agreed royalty is indemnified per stem or bunch sold.
A clear focus on commercial winners ensures the investment is worthwhile. Promising hybrid plants resulting from the breeding programmes are extensively trialled, and only one per cent make it through the process and onto the market.
The first commercial Kangaroo Paw release was ‘Kings Park Royale’. Five new releases under the Bush Gems Celebrations® banner are ‘Aussie Spirit’, ‘Cocktail’, ‘Fireworks,’ ‘Carnival’ and ‘Masquerade’ – the first ‘blue’ kangaroo paw that is disease tolerant. They will be released globally, first in Australia and the USA, followed by Europe two years later.
The first commercial Grevillea selection was ‘RSL Spirit of ANZAC’, a hardy plant with vibrant red flowers released in 2015 to commemorate the centenary of ANZAC. A further 16 cultivars of Grevillea have been released, including ‘Outback Sunrise’ with tricoloured flowers and ‘Scarlet Moon’, the first in the ‘Moon’ series, so named because the flower buds are white. The second series is the ‘Dream’ series and includes ‘Gelato Dream’, ‘Tangerine Dream’ and ‘Aphrodite’s Dream’. Other releases include grevilleas suitable for landscaping projects, street trees, and ground covers.
A range of plant tissue culture techniques, including somatic fusion and increasingly ploidy, have been applied to develop novel varieties of waxflower (Chamelaucium species) and used to overcome barriers to wide crosses between genera within the Chamelaucium group, including Chamelaucium, Verticordia, Pileanthus, Darwinia and Actinodium.
These techniques allow breeders to introduce new and highly desirable features into selected waxflower species and hybrids. These include larger individual flowers, frilled flowers, double flowers, new colours and early and late flowering selections. To date, waxflower releases from Kings Park include ‘Morning Delight’,’ Dawn Pearl’,’ Local Hero’,’ Giselle’, and ‘Pinnacle Pink’.
Helix Australia’s breeding programme has also resulted in an edible selection of waxflower. ‘Jambinu Zest’ was developed specifically for the kitchen and targeted the home gardener and food and beverage market. Its needle-like leaves are like the herb rosemary when stripped from the stem. Its strong citrus aroma enhances sauces, stocks, cakes and cocktails.
This selection of waxflower is currently in three commercial gins and three craft beers.
Boronias are filler products, with dainty, small, four-petalled flowers densely clustered along the stems; both flowers and foliage have a citrusy aroma. The breeding programme aims to produce novel Boronias with bright colours, terminal flowers, good fragrance, long stems and a more extended flowering season.
Some are suitable for potted colour (‘Magenta Stars’), others for cut flowers (‘Plum Bells’). Another three or four hybrids, including tetraploids with larger flowers, are in the final stages of assessment before being commercially released.
The team is applying their skills to develop elite genetics and create improved Leptospermum selections from which manuka honey and oil are derived. There is a similar focus on developing eucalypts with improved yields of essential oils.”