Wantable waxflowers by Arnelia: from add-on to primary cut flower crop

Blooming profusely: Chamelaucium uncinatum ‘Moonlight Delight’.

The goal of Hans Hettasch from South Africa-based cut flower nursery Arnelia Farms is always to try to grow the perfect waxflower. One which is strong and healthy, of a fashionable shape, and will perform superbly in any bouquet. He talks to FCI about the inaugural Waxflower Tour in South Africa, his blooming partnership with renowned wax flower breeders Helix Australia and Digby Growns, his biggest achievement in waxflower production and propagation, and the state of the trade.

Hans Hettasch founded Arnelia Farms in 2002. At that time, the company focused more on Proteaceae cut flower production (Leucospermum, Leucadendron and Protea), while waxflower was an add-on. Over the years, waxflower became increasingly important in production volumes and value, and today it is Arnelia’s primary cut flower crop. Today, the farm spans a production area of 60ha, of which approximately 40ha is used for the field production of waxflower.
When Hettasch phones in from Hopefield, 100 km north of Cape Town, the inaugural Waxflower Tour South Africa lies only a few days behind him.

Hettasch’s willingness to open Arnelia Farm allowed growers Efraim Gafni from Gafni Farm, Omer Kessler from Said Ronen Farm, technical adviser Gershon Itzhak and marketeer Lihi Salpeter- Danziger from Blooms Floral Imports – all from Israel – to experience hands on the production and farms that shaped South Africa’s thriving waxflower industry. The educational trip was led by Adrian Parsons, chief executive of waxflower breeder Helix Australia, and Digby Growns from Kings Park and Botanic Gardens (KPBG), Perth, Western Australia, another famed expert in the field of waxflowers.

Hans Hettasch standing in a field of waxflowers on Arnelia Farms.

FCI: How did the event help South Africa’s wax flower industry progress?

Hans Hettasch: “Interaction between growers is always valuable, and exchanging ideas regarding production, propagation and technical issues was great. Gaining a better perspective on Northern hemisphere production and marketing puts many things in perspective for South African waxflower growers, as Israel is the world’s biggest waxflower producing country. Thanks to strong production in both Northern and Southern hemisphere, waxflower is available in most markets year-round.”

What do you think was the tour’s absolute highlight?

“The tour offered Arnelia the opportunity to showcase the Helix varieties in production, as cut flowers and potted plants. Participants saw several excitingly new breeding numbers under evaluation. Having the legendary waxflower breeder, Digby Growns, in the group to explain some of the breeding and evaluation processes and give everyone some insight into the pipeline of new varieties yet to come was amazing.”

You grow waxflower from URC, a task not for the faint-hearted, am I right?

“Having the right conditions in the propagation greenhouse, healthy mother stock, timing and choosing the right material to propagate from are all important factors in successful waxflower propagation. Some varieties are tough to propagate and require specific techniques. We continuously improve our strike rates and the quality of rooted cutting we produce.”

Over the years, you have become an experienced waxflower grower. Technically speaking, what does it take to succeed in a waxflower crop?

“Waxflower has a set of unique growing conditions which can make the plants quite tricky to grow if they are not met. Each variety has its nuances of challenges, and growing techniques must be adapted accordingly. Climate, soil conditions, nutrition, and crop protection are all technical matters that need constant attention to detail.”

Many years ago, you teamed up with Mike Cramer of the University of Cape Town in a trial exploring nutrition in Proteas (another flagship product of Arnelia Farm). Tell us about nutrition for waxflowers.

“Finding the right balance of nutrients for optimal production of each variety we grow is an ongoing affair. All commercial varieties are growth-tracked, and regular soil and leaf sampling help guide our nutrient mixes and rate decisions. Knowing when each variety initiates flowers is important. Trying to limit overgrowth without compromising leaf quality on the plant is always a balancing act that requires close monitoring and agile management.”

What achievement are you most proud of?

“To work closely with Helix Australia on trialling and commercialising new waxflower varieties and bringing them to the global market. We continue to work hard to produce consistent, high-quality cut flowers for all our clients. We started working together in 2008. Access to new waxflower varieties has been Arnelia’s key growth driver. As Helix Australia expands the range of new varieties being trialled and commercialised from the breeding programme at Kings Park Botanic Garden, the scope for growth in waxflower production grows. New varieties from this breeding programme are so unique in colour, flower size and timing that I believe the commercial potential for production is enormous. Almost all of Arnelia’s waxflower production is of Helix varieties. We currently have 18 Helix varieties in commercial production and add new ones to our range every year.”

Speaking of unique waxflowers, tell us about Helix’s exciting range of megalopetalum waxflowers and the two-toned Sweet16 series.

“The Chamelaucium megalopetalum hybrids not only have larger flowers but also produce their flowers in an umbrella shape over the top of the stem, rather than more laterally along the stem as Chamelaucium uncinatum does. The variety ‘My Sweet Sixteen’ is one of a kind, with flowers starting white and then maturing from pink to red. At its prime, ‘My Sweet Sixteen’ is sold with all three colours of flowers on the stem.”

What are the most important benefits of working with Helix’s PBR-protected varieties?

“New varieties are essential to Arnelia, and we understand that breeding is expensive and that to support a sustainable breeding programme in the long-term, protection of plant breeder’s rights and management of the relationship between growers and the breeder must be nurtured. Helix Australia is serious about the future of waxflower and working with its licenced growers to protect and manage their varieties in a way that benefits all parties in the long run.”

What can you tell about yields and prices?

“Yields can vary quite dramatically between varieties. Some early-season varieties have lower yields or thinner stems but are still commercially viable to produce due to high prices. Mid-season varieties need high yields, long stems, and good weight to earn their place in the assortment.”

Do you see an increase or decrease in South Africa’s plantation areas?

“In our country, plantings are rapidly increasing to meet market demand and incorporate new varieties into the assortment.”

How would you characterise your buyer’s audience?

“At Arnelia, we sell all our flowers directly from the farm to importers, wholesalers, and bouquet makers in markets around the world. We do our utmost to bring our waxflower varieties to as many markets as possible as directly as possible. I am convinced that there are many untapped opportunities for waxflower, especially as more and more new varieties become available, and our assortment of colours expands over the whole season.”

Do you find yourself in a buyer or seller’s market?

“In my opinion, it is almost always a buyers’ market, but by working as closely as possible with the buyers of our flowers, providing information on varieties and by promoting our new varieties, all the while working hard to provide the best possible quality and service we hope to be in a position where our flowers are sought after.”

What’s your biggest tip for staying on trend and attracting waxflower buyers?

“By working as closely as possible with the buyers of our flowers, we hope to be able to pick up on trends quickly. Most important to Arnelia is to supply a consistent quality product.”

What do you think are the critical gaps in the market?

“Good clean white with flowers over the top of the stems, throughout the season, is the most important priority. Furthermore, pinks and purples with the same flowering characteristics are also important. High yield and good vase life are critical.”

What is the outlook for the 2022/2023 waxflower season?

“We are positive that after the tough time we had sold flowers in the scorching Northern hemisphere mid-summer period, the demand will rapidly increase, and we can look forward to a good season.”

This article first appeared in the September 2022 edition of FloraCulture International.

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