South Africa’s iconic protea is in high demand with 3,43 million exported throughout the world in 2017. The largest markets are the European Union and Russia, which represent almost half of the exports.
This is according to Cape Flora SA, a non-profit company that monitors and promotes sustainable exporting of proteas from South Africa. Cape Flora estimates that South Africa’s total fynbos market is estimated at R130 million, with some 4,200 tons of SA flowers exported last year.
Fynbos is indigenous to the Western Cape of South Africa, with its main season occurring from October to January. The most popular fynbos includes Protea, Leucodendrums and Leucospernums.
Recent floral consumption trends show that younger consumers are purchasing fewer flowers than two decades ago. But fynbos sales have remained strong because of a rising demand for sustainably harvested bouquets, and also because of their longevity, affordable price, size and striking colour.
This has contributed to the popularity of proteas in the European wedding market.
According to the UK wedding-focused online platform Bridal Musings, "proteas have mythological associations with change and transformation, they symbolise diversity and courage".
Because proteas can be dried, they work for every season. "As a hardy, fibrous flower, they dry really well, making them a long-lasting option for your wedding day too," writes Bridal Musings.
"As a somewhat exotic and unusual bloom, with both bright and muted tones, this versatile flower will work for many styles of wedding."
South Africa’ most exported protea is the Blushing Bride, with 1,18 million stems.
Only some 1,000 ha fynbos are cultivated in South Africa, with the flowers planted in rows like any other crop, says Elzette Schutte, of Cape Flora SA. The vast majority of the fybos (which can include proteas, but are mostly green or "filler" fynbos to complete bouquets) - about 200,000 ha - are gathered through "veld harvesting".
The harvesting of protected fynbos is regulated, and a licence and certificate of registration from Cape Nature is required by the harvesters. For many people in SA, harvesting fynbos is their only income, says Schutte.