Native flower power at Bindoon

30 Apr, 2012 02:00 AM
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DOES anyone else find it a bit disturbing that there is a bigger export market for our native wildflowers than there is domestically?

WA has the best reputation in the world for growing native wildflowers, yet it seems we don't really appreciate what's in our own backyard.

This Mother's Day, when you're choosing a bunch of flowers to give to the special lady in your life, go native!

The varieties of native wildflowers available have come a long way, just ask Nina Foulkes-Taylor, who's been growing them on her Bindoon property for 32 years.

Nina and her husband Anton started their flower farm, Plantation Wildflowers, in 1980, when they were looking to diversify their sheep farm.

With light soils and gravels on their 243 hectare property, they wanted to work to their strengths and trying to grow pasture wasn't an effective way of doing so.

So Nina inquired to a number of wildflower wholesalers and gathered plenty of information before they cleared the appropriate land and built a dam in order to irrigate their 10ha plantation.

These days, the Foulkes-Taylors have approximately 25 varieties of Geraldton Wax, native bushes for foliage, black Kangaroo Paws and many more.

All the varieties are Australian natives, something Nina is very passionate about which is why they are continually working on developing new varieties.

With an average three-year lag time from planting to flowering, they have to almost try and predict trends in order to stay ahead of the game.

Plants last an average of eight to 12 years before they begin to lose vigour.

"When we started, we had several different colours of Kangaroo Paws and some Verticordias, Geraldton Waxes and a few others," Nina said.

"But now, we only really sell hybrid waxes and one kind of Kangaroo Paw, it's changed a lot and you have to change with it, otherwise you don't succeed.

"The only way we can keep a premium price is by being the first in with a new variety and making sure our quality is good.

"I think it's universally acknowledged that the WA product is the best in the world and also the most expensive, so it has to be the best.

"You have to keep changing varieties all the time, it's a bit of a guessing game, as you have to try and predict the demand in three years time."

The majority of the Foulkes-Taylor's flowers are exported, either directly to Europe or via wholesalers to the US, Canada and Japan.

The remainder goes to markets in Sydney and Melbourne, with a very small amount being sold to the local Perth market.

But they do also sell directly from the farm.

"Unfortunately the Perth market is very small," she said.

"The public don't really understand our natives, people perceive it as a low-cost product that grows in the bush and they don't have the exotic feel of roses.

"There's a small core in Perth which demand native flowers and we do supply that, but it's not very much.

"But we're happy to service the local market."

According to Nina, the plants are fairly low-maintenance, but growing them is a far cry from skipping through the fields picking flowers into a basket - it's hard work and the costs are high.

They employ both backpackers and locals, from July through to October to help with the crop.

"Native plants appreciate the seasons and they operate within the seasons," Nina said.

"So they do vary, some years the wax might start flowering a month earlier than the year before.

"But we would be picking the Geraldton Wax variants from May until October.

"It isn't walking around with a basket under your arm; I don't like to disillusion people too much.

"It is hard work but it's not hard labour to us, because we love the flowers and enjoy growing things so much.

"It's fascinating and interesting."

The flowers are harvested by hand and bought in to the sheds and graded.

All the flowers have to be healthy and pest-free, especially given they will be inspected by quarantine, bound for export markets.

Nina said it was just like farming, but also like having a massive garden.

Asking Nina to chose her favourite flower is a bit like asking her to choose a favourite child, she loves so many of them, each for their unique attributes.

Mother's Day isn't a particularly busy time for Plantation Wildflowers, although Nina said they would be delivering to local florists, with products like foliage, Hakeas and Golden Banksias.

On a personal note, her daughter Vivienne has just joined the business, which Nina is very excited about.

"Between us, we're full of ideas," she said.

Even after 32 years and feeling the cost pressures of a high Australian dollar, Nina still loves growing native wildflowers.

She said it was such a fascinating way of farming and was unique in the fact that they were not controlled by the weather.

"We don't care when the rain falls, so we're pretty lucky," she said.

"We are in a sense, already adapted to climate change because we have that built-in versatility to adaptation.

"If I was starting again now, I would still start again now.

"For people who love to be outdoors and love growing things, it's very challenging and rewarding."

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