“Flowers are life and death in gestures,” Steve Oldroyd from Hebron guest house outside Citrusdal tells me. “They bring people joy and comfort.” I agree. What would we do without nature’s beauties to celebrate, to share feelings, to lift spirits? I ponder this as I drive up Piekenierskloof Pass to explore the flower-farming area of the Olifantsrivier Mountains, where I have heard several fynbos flower farms are found.
A love for flowers
Surrounded by fields of Geraldton wax (Chamelaucium uncinatum), Steve tells me how these flowers end up on the other side of the world just a day or two after they are harvested. “The Dutch have been trading in flowers for hundreds of years and facilitate the flow of flowers to Europe, where they are sold directly to clients or put on auction,” he says.
Steve is a ‘hobby farmer’, who grows wax flowers – excellent, long-lasting fillers for fynbos arrangements – to augment the income from his and wife Caro’s quaint guest house and farmstall-style restaurant.
He explains that there are about nine flower farmers in the area and directs me to Joretha Grib and the family-run Flowershed business along nearby Paleisheuwel Road. Joretha grows flowers for the local market and for export, focusing on indigenous and Fynbos flowers, especially blushing brides (Serruria florida), dubbed ‘the Cinderella of the protea species’ and often used in bouquets.
At the farm, Joretha’s son Ben, who is responsible for marketing and product development, describes the family’s love for flowers, which is reflected in their garden, in the books piled up on their sitting-room table and in the flowers inside their home. “Flowers are contagious,” he says. “The more time you spend with them, the more you appreciate them.”
A princess’ bouquet
Joretha tells me how her lifelong interest in flowers started. “My mother gave me a small patch in our garden where I could plant my own plants, and I made flower arrangements for the local agricultural show in Citrusdal.”
Over lunch I hear how her flower-farming business began in earnest 20 years ago, when a team from a major retail chain arrived at the farm to meet with her husband George, a citrus and rooibos farmer, to discuss buying his organic citrus.
“When they sat down at the dining-room table, the representative from the horticultural department commented on my arrangements of blushing brides and asked where they were from. He invited me to give a presentation.”
This led to the Gribs planting 1.8 hectares in 1998 from seed, at that stage the largest cultivation of blushing brides in the world. From that two-year period of trial and error, their flower farming business grew to the 20 hectares now reserved for wax flowers as well as pincushions, various types of leucadendrons, king proteas and ‘Madibas’ – a slightly smaller protea named for our former president.
Beginning with small, affordable posies of blushing brides with lavender, they expanded their range to include larger bouquets, plus bunches of proteas and pincushions, and their revolutionary aqua posy – a small posy wrapped with its own water, a concept they originally saw in France.
Recently, they introduced a cascade, a hanging bouquet with white, night proteas and blushing brides. Joretha has become well-known worldwide for her magnificent blushing brides and even supplied the flowers for Charlene Wittstock’s bouquet when she married Prince Albert of Monaco in 2011.
Touring the farm
After a tour of the nursery, where the propagation by seed and cuttings takes place, we all climb into the bakkie to look around the farm. The hillsides are bursting with Cape flora, here in one of the richest and most diverse floral kingdoms on Earth. As we drive, George relates the charming tale about where the name ‘blushing bride’ originated. “In the good old days, when a gentleman went courting in the Franschhoek-Paarl area, he would have
a serruria in his lapel, a sign that he was going to ask for her hand in marriage.”
He tells me that the plant was thought to be extinct in the early 1900s. “During the Boer War, Lionel Baker, brother to Sir Herbert, who served in a regiment at the Cape, went walking with a friend in the Franschhoek mountains. They found a patch of blushing brides in the sandy soil that had survived a recent veld fire.
He picked a sample and took it to the Bolus Herbarium in Cape Town where it was identified as the long-lost blushing bride.” The ladies of Franschhoek went up the mountain to collect seed and slowly the species returned, but it was never farmed commercially until the Gribs planted it.
A haven for children
I leave the family after an afternoon of platteland hospitality, and continue along the Paleisheuwel Road to the farm belonging to Neil Hall, who unlike the Gribs, exports most of his flowers. Neil studied agriculture at the University of Pietermaritzburg, where he met his wife, Olivia, and they shared the dream to start a farm. In 2004, they made the move to the Citrusdal area, with a plan to develop a piece of family land that had lain fallow for 12 years. It would take six years before they planted their first fields.
In the meantime, they worked in town, built their house and established the infrastructure on the farm. Neil picked his first crop in 2012. The four hectares of flowers expanded over the years into the 30 hectares he now has under cultivation, with multiple varieties from the Proteaceae family – protea (sugarbush), leucospermum (commonly known as pincushion) and leucadendron (cone bush). He joined three farmers in KwaZulu-Natal who got together to share information and knowledge, and started to collectively market their flowers under the brand ZuluFlora, when they realised that their products complemented each other.
When Neil and Olivia moved to the farm, they noticed the need for a haven for children in the area and started a non-profit NGO with Hebron, focusing on youth-based initiatives for the surrounding communities, and running weekend and holiday education programmes.
“We would love the school bus to stop here,” Neil says. There is now a crèche for farmworkers’ children, a sports field and a large workroom with living space for groups.
While we’re talking, Sadie the golden retriever pup comes to the house with a pincushion in her mouth that she’s pilfered from a bucket of flowers awaiting evaluation in the shed. Neil laughs. It’s all in a day’s work. This brings up our next topic of discussion over a cup of hot rooibos tea, while the weavers chirp outside and his children run in to say hello.
Arms full of golden pincushions
Neil tells me about an organisation he belongs to called Future Fynbos, which breeds and introduces new varieties of fynbos to the market, controlling the volume and quality with select growers. It begins with a trial period, when the plants are evaluated, and the varieties that do well are chosen to grow commercially. Neil plays his part by growing varieties for the trial period and assessing the plants. This has led him to select some of the plants for his own fields when he thinks they are something special.
On a tour around the farm, I have chance to meet the team of workers who are packing their last ZuluFlora boxes that are headed for the airport. We visit the nursery, ‘the key to the industry’, and then drive through the farm passing a large heap of compost that supplies compost tea to the irrigation system. Neil tells me, “We want the soil to be in as good a condition, if not better, as when received.”
He explains how, after six years of harvesting, planting 20 varieties, learning along the way about the topography and soil of the land that changes from rock to sand, that so much of what he has discovered is by trial and error.
“But you’ve got to love what you do because that’s going to override the challenges at the end of the day.”
I leave the valley, arms full of golden pincushions, waxes and African tulips. The last rays of the sun touch the tips of the mountains and turn the flowers and citrus trees to gold, and I imagine the Cape flowers brightening interiors worldwide with bursts of floral sunshine.