New breeding grounds for Kangaroo Paws

By Gabrielle Stannus

Although moving to Tasmania recently, Angus Stewart is still heavily involved in breeding Anigozanthos cultivars for the domestic and international markets. Having started out in the 1980s, Angus has seen many changes in the way that this wildflower has been breed for ornamental use.

Kangaroo Paws are now grown in various locations across the globe. In northern Europe, they are grown in greenhouses as what Angus calls the ‘Pot Crop’, i.e. disposable potted colour market. Kangaroo Paws are increasingly popular in areas with similar climates to their ‘birthplace’, including southern Europe, west coast USA, South Africa, New Zealand, and even southern Japan.

Angus works closely with Ramm Botanicals. “Ramm Botanicals have the production and distribution logistics covered here and overseas”, says Angus, meaning he is left free to do what he does best: plant breeding.

Ramm Botanicals conduct their own breeding. Ryan Weber, Managing Director, says they also work closely with Angus and Kings Park in Western Australia to develop cultivars that are in his words “protectable and worthwhile”, i.e. good sellers.

Using this approach, Ramm Botanicals has built a successful business model based upon a wide range of intellectual property including growing media and formulations, and plant genetics.

Ryan says in the case of the United States market, Ramm Botanicals generally either patent a cultivar themselves or give it to distributors who then pick up the patent costs themselves, with Ramm retaining the production of tissue culture from which they make their margin. Their US distributors mostly sell for landscaping purposes or to box stores.

Top tips for breeders entering overseas markets

Ryan provides these tips for plant breeders wishing to enter overseas markets.

1. Find the right distributor
It is vital that growers find the right distributor for their products. “You can get lost in the whole export game. Larger companies may not necessarily put effort into your products, unless you have bred something really special”, says Ryan. He suggests that smaller distributors may be better for those growers with a niche product to sell.

2. Maintain good, steady production
Labour costs in Australia have seen some companies head off-shore to get their plants produced in volume more cheaply. If you do go down this route, Ryan has some words of caution: “Co-manage production offshore and ensure that you have open and clear communications with off shore growers to ensure a seamless production model”.

3. Continue to develop and support your breeding program
Ryan reminds plant breeders not to forget what got them into the overseas market in the first place. He says that plant breeding is a long-term proposition, and should not be seen as a one-off. So continue to improve your plant genetics and look for more opportunities to place your varieties in the landscape and retail markets.

For plant breeders looking for those niche markets into which to expand overseas, Angus suggest bush foods are the go. Why these native plants? “We have the genetic resources”, says Angus, i.e. the intellectual property from which to add economic value to our wild flora. “We can breed then licence out cultivars that can then be produced in other parts of the world where freight is not so prohibitive”.

Angus believes that there are real investment opportunities to breed food crops here that are more adaptable to a changing climate, thus diversifying food offerings globally. Just this month, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium announced that the entire genome for bread wheat has been sequenced. This consortium claim that this work will pave the way for the production of wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality and improved sustainability.

Angus laments that incredibly little work has been done on Australian plants in that regard. “We’re still learning about the cultivation of Australian plants for food”, says Angus.

Angus has recently been exploring the use of native bush foods for an edible garden planned for the Macquarie Point redevelopment in Hobart. Barbarea australis, an edible Wintercress, has caught his attention given its genetic potential to use in breeding with other Brassicas to improve disease and pest resistance, and tolerance to environmental stress. Native Glycine and wild rice from northern Australia may also have potential as food crops.

Angus says that the rhizomes of some Kangaroo Paws were eaten by indigenous Australians. So will we be hearing from him or Ryan in the near future about the development of a new edible Anigozanthos cultivar? Stay tuned!