The world has six floral kingdoms, the smallest and richest of which is found at the southern tip of Africa. The Cape Floristic Kingdom is the only one to be fully contained within one country, and has one of the highest known concentration of species in the world.

Botanically, the Cape has been on scientists’ radars since a Dutch trade group collected the Oleander-leaf Protea (Protea neriifolia) in 1597.

Some 350 years later, in 1953, the Cape’s unique flowers crossed the divide between science and commercialism when a bouquet of P. cynaroides was sent as a gift to Queen Elizabeth in celebration of her coronation. It was the first recorded export of fresh Protea from South Africa to Europe.

Today South Africa is the world’s leading Protea exporter. The European Union receives around 80% of total exports. The United Kingdom accounts for another 10%, while the remaining flowers go to Africa, the Middle East, North America, Eastern Europe and the Far East.

Despite the uniqueness of the Cape flora, the local industry faces significant, and growing, competition from other Southern Hemisphere countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Zimbabwe. They have similar climates but, in many instances, boast advanced transport logistics and post-harvest technologies that increase product quality and reduce transport costs.

“South Africa’s unique Proteaceae species, with their large, spectacular flowers, and the great variety of indigenous flora are high in demand in international markets.” – Dr Lynn Hoffman

Fast facts 

  • Cape flora accounts for 90% of South Africa’s cut flower exports.
  • The value of South Africa’s cut flower industry is estimated at R1 billion per year, of which exports are close to R500
  • South African exports earn around R390 million a year on international exotic flower markets.
  • An estimated 20 076 014 Cape flora cut stems were exported during the 2015/2016 season.

Northern Hemisphere countries, such as Israel, the USA (California and Hawaii), Portugal and Spain (Madeira and Canary Islands), Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and China are also aggressive competitors. Their proximity to European markets, with the associated lower freight costs, as well as a different flowering season, gives Northern Hemisphere producers a competitive edge.

Various factors have to be addressed to ensure the ongoing competitiveness of the Cape flora export industry. These include efficient freighting, cost-effective storage and transport value chains, prolonging post-harvest quality, and the ever-present phytosanitary insect issues.

The issues facing the industry are often interlinked. For example, increased interest in sea freight of floricultural products has allowed for larger volumes to be exported at lower prices and a reduced carbon footprint. However, the extended transport period has serious cold-storage implications. A balance has to be struck between temperatures that are low enough to eliminate pests and manage the effects of water loss, ethylene and leaf yellowing, but high enough to prevent post-harvest disorders such as chilling injury and leaf blackening.

Fortunately, the constant challenges faced by producers and exporters alike promote an industry that invests in research and innovative thinking to secure its place in the international arena.

Source: Chronica Horticulturae, Vol 56, No. 3, 2016

2019 (R&D currently underway)

  1. CATTS treatments for export fynbos


  1. Commercial feasibility of closed ventilation and automatic ventilation for sea freight of Proteaceae cut flower stems


  1. Novel technologies for post-harvest treatment of Cape flora flowers for control of phytosanitary insect pests.
    Two novel techniques hold great potential for mitigating the most persistent pests troubling the export of South African Proteaceae to stricter markets.
    Read article: New tools to bash bugs
  1. Developing innovative technologies to obtain a better understanding of the physiological processes critical to maintaining post-harvest quality in Proteaceae cut flower stems.
    Leaf blackening is a post-harvest disorder that blots the protea’s export copybook. New research suggests that the right sugars at the right time can help these iconic South African flowers to turn over a new leaf as far as quality and vase life are concerned.
    Read article:  Longer vase life for Proteas
  1. Defining sea freight transportation conditions for Cape flora cut flower products to align with new reduced energy consumption shipping technology.
    As the preferred mode of transportation for Cape flora shifts from air to sea, the industry is looking for ways to ensure extended flower quality while simultaneously saving costs.
    Read article:  Helping Cape flora find its sea legs