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It took flower grower Paul Dalley almost seven years before he found the perfect Australian native for the Japanese flower market, but once he did he never looked back.

“When we first sent it from here, they got really excited. They rang up the next day and said: ‘When are you going to send more of this?'” Dalley said.

The flower in question is the Australian Christmas bush, so named because of its bright red flowers that bloom over green leaves in December. The plant grows wild in bushland around Sydney and is a staple centerpiece for many Australian Christmas lunches.

Japan is Australia’s largest export market, with almost half of the country’s cut flower exports going to auctions in Tokyo and Osaka. For Dalley, that means a small 16 hectare corner of his farm can earn him upward of 120,000 Australian dollars (about $91,500) each year.

Dalley weaves between rows of trees on his farm in Kempsey, a large rural town in northern New South Wales, as he explains why the product sells so well in Japan.

“When we first started selling it, the importer … said it reminds the Japanese people of the maple leaves which are also going red at that time. I didn’t get it until I first went over there,” the 66-year-old grower said.

“The sun in Australia is so strong in the summer that all the colors look a bit washed out,” he said. Summer Down Under occurs from December through February.

“But then you take it to Tokyo and there are no leaves on the trees, and the sky’s gray, and there’s concrete everywhere, and it’s just very bright. It has an emotional impact, and I think that actually happens,” he added.

Dalley whips out his phone to show a photo he took of one his Christmas bushes arranged in an elaborate display at an up-market florist in Tokyo.

Bare tree branches, twisting toward the ceiling, are placed between the bright red flowers of the Christmas bush. The green leaves on the long stems have been stripped, leaving behind only the delicate red flowers, creating an impressive indoor autumnal display that looks surprisingly like tiny maple leaves.

Australia has been exporting cut flowers to Japan since the mid-1980s, but in 1994 Dalley became the first Australian grower to send farm-grown Christmas bush to Japan, and after the warm reception from importers, he encouraged fellow Australians to join in.

“We encouraged other growers. We were selling them plants and encouraging them to grow the flowers properly and export (them), because we thought if we tried to keep it to ourselves we’d be too small to keep Japan interested on a sustained basis,” Dalley explained.

“It gradually became quite a big crop, and by the time we got to around … the Sydney Olympics, we were a booming business. The Australian dollar was at about ¥55 so you could make a lot of money,” he recalled.

But in recent years, a stronger Australian currency combined with a shrinking flower market in Japan has meant demand in the country for Australian flowers has decreased, while interest from the Chinese market steadily grows.

That’s been the experience of Wafex, Australia’s leading flower import-export company.

“We used to ship 70-80 percent of our produce over to Japan, but their flower industry has been in a gradual decline over the last few years,” said Ryan Musson, a second-generation grower and exporter with Wafex.

“Funnily enough, two years ago we sold nothing to China, then last year it became our biggest market, so that’s huge,” Musson noted.

Wafex’s experience is reflective of the broader industry in Australia. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that in 2014 and 2015, less than 1 percent of all Australian flower exports went to China. Then in 2016, the market grew over 1,000 percent, propelling China to become Australia’s fifth-largest export partner.

Although the Chinese demand for Australian flowers is still dwarfed by the Japanese market, which is more than eight times as large, Musson believes interest will only increase.

“Imported flowers are very new to them (in China). It’s classified as exotic, so there’s lots of interest there,” he observed.

Despite the market opportunities in China, Dalley said he’s happy to stay with his Japanese clients, who he said have been very loyal over the past 20 years.

Dalley still exports about 85 percent of his plants to Japan, and he said the strength of Australian flowers is their uniqueness. Combined with a Japanese eye for quality, he believes there will always be someone willing to buy what he grows.

“People keep saying the flower market in Japan keeps decreasing, but it doesn’t seem to impact us too much. We seem to be able to sell more. If we have more that’s good (quality), we can always sell it,” he said on an optimistic note.

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