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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Floral Gems Coming To D.C.: Flower Power Saves South African Ecosystem / October 10, 1997 / News from the USDA Agricultural Research Service

Partially opened King Protea

[Click here for a related story about a new South African flower named after Tipper Gore.]

[Click here for an Agricultural Research magazine story describing the cooperative effort between ARS and the South African Agricultural Research Council.]

Floral Gems Coming To D.C.: Flower Power Saves South African Ecosystem

By Jill Lee
October 10, 1997

WASHINGTON, D.C., Oct. 10--The Ceres Karoo mountains in South Africa's Fynbos region are covered with gems--not the kind you dig from the earth, but those that grow from the soil.

At one time, Derick Ontong and his workers rose before dawn each day to comb the rocky mountains for red, pink and creamy white wildflowers. Now, to protect the rugged but fragile ecosystem--and for economic reasons--Ontong and other South Africans are switching from flower picking to flower farming.

The transition is being nurtured by a partnership between South Africa's Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and researchers at an urban garden half a world away: the U.S. National Arboretum operated in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The arboretum, part of USDA's Agricultural Research Service, will be the site for this country's largest-ever South African flower exhibit starting Oct 17.

"I have visited South Africa many times and am always struck by that country's natural beauty," said Vice President Al Gore. "I'm encouraged that this partnership will allow Americans to enjoy the beauty of South Africa's flowers and that our technology will help the South Africans preserve their land and its native plants."

The floral research is part of the U.S.-South Africa Binational Commission, initiated by Gore and South Africa Deputy President Thabo Mbeki in 1994. The commission provides a framework for collaboration in agriculture, business development, energy, environment issues, human resources, education and technology to benefit both countries and strengthen democracy in South Africa.

Wildflower harvesting in the Fynbos provides income for 20,000 people. But even in a land desperate for new jobs, it is viewed as a high-risk way to make a living. Besides the heat and difficult terrain, fires frequently scorch the grassy plateaus, halting flower growth for up to 6 years. Bugs and disease can leave blossoms unfit for international markets.

The work is not easy on the environment, either. Researchers warn that wildflower harvesting depletes seed reserves, tramples plants, disturbs the soil and spreads the root rot disease Phytophthora.

Ensuring that the flowers--and the Fynbos ecology--have a healthy future is what led to the partnership between the National Arboretum and South Africa's Agricultural Research Council (ARC).

"This partnership will provide American florists and their customers with these stunning flowers and also provide rural South Africans with the technology they need to help protect the delicate ecosystem of South Africa's Fynbos region, " said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "Clearly, such scientific cooperation benefits both of our countries."

Cultivation is the key to preserving the floral splendor of the Fynbos.

Elton John Jefthas of the ARC is helping Derick Ontong and other South Africans raise flowers in an agricultural setting. There, fires don't threaten, pests can be controlled and workers don't face the hardships of harvesting wildflowers.

The cooperative agreement means Jefthas will be able to draw on the horticultural expertise of the National Arboretum to boost flower cultivation in the Fynbos and ease the pressure on the region's wildflowers. He will travel to the United States on a Cochran Fellowship to learn cutting-edge cultivation techniques from arboretum scientists. In turn, arboretum researchers will gain insights from Jefthas and others on developing new floral hybrids for U.S. markets.

To celebrate this cooperation, the largest collection of cultivated South African flowers ever assembled in the United States goes on display at the arboretum Oct. 17 through Nov. 16. The display will feature the cream of South Africa's floral beauty including the breathtaking King Protea and several hybrids never seen before in the U.S.

Co-sponsors of the exhibition are the National Arboretum, ARC and the South African Embassy.

The research agreement has implications far beyond floriculture. South Africa holds 10 percent of the world's plant species on only 1 percent of the earth's land mass. About 100 different botanical products are currently harvested from its wild areas, many with medicinal value. The research agreement opens the door to studying and preserving South Africa's wild plants and their untapped pharmaceutical and industrial treasures.

Scientific contact: Tom Elias, director, ARs U.S. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C., phone (202) 245-4539, fax (202) 245-4575,

Last Modified: 5/9/2014