THEY come in spidery speckled reds and dancing sprays of yellow; in moody blues and dusky purples; in violets, pinks and lilacs with hearts of virgin white. In fleshy rusts and pastel greens, in delicate sprigs and strange sci-fi shapes. There are in fact over 30,000 species of them. And yet, despite their sheer profusion, orchids have remained symbols of the exotic, the mysterious, the inaccessible and the wild. Coveted possessions of the connoisseur. For which a customer in Japan or the US is willing to pay anything from $3 to $35 (Rs 130-Rs 1,500) for a single quality stem!
In India though, the taste for orchids is new. Until about five years ago, there was almost no trade in cut flower orchids here. The few spikes that did make their way into domestic markets were mostly rejects from Singapore and Bangkok, bought cheap at Rs 3 to Rs 25 a stem, and shipped out in random dribbles by a motley brigade of air hostesses and opportunists who sold the spikes for about Rs 50 a piece to florists in India. The customer here then ended up paying anything between Rs 100 and Rs 200 for an orchid spike that was headed for the trash can in Singapore.
Today, however, the scene is radically different, "very upbeat and flamboyant", as Vikas Gutgutia of Ferns and Petals, a south Delhi flower boutique, puts it. Earlier, says he, 500 spikes a week were difficult both to access and sell; today 5,000 are too little. What's triggered this change is a clutch of commercial orchid farms that have mushroomed in Chennai, Kochi, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai, Pune and Guwahati. India has among the largest number of indigenous species-over 1,300-of orchids, but being slow, seasonal bloomers with short shelf lives, these are not commercially viable. With the new farms cultivating hybrid species imported from Singapore, Malaysia, Bangkok and Brazil, high-quality orchids with a vase life of 20 to 30 days have suddenly been made available in India for as little as Rs 30 to Rs 75 a stem. And with the increased supply, demand has grown. (The most committed clientele, in Calcutta and Delhi, surprisingly are the Marwaris.) There are now at least 10 weddings a year in Delhi which have orchids as a theme and where people are willing to spend up to Rs 5 lakh on it. "In fact," grumbles Gutgutia, "orchids are now so commonly available, and so reasonably priced, it is no longer a privileged flower."
Captained by passionate flower lovers, most of the farms responsible for this orchid boom started out as small-scale hobbies. Rakesh Himatsingka, chairman of India Carbon, started ICL Flora Exotica in Guwahati after a chance visit to an orchid market in Singapore. "I was bowled over," says he. "I used up all my baggage allowance over several trips, just bringing in plants." Vibhu Natarajan, ceo of Natural Synergies Ltd (NSL) in Chennai, one of the largest and oldest orchid farms in India established in '93, was similarly smitten. He recalls how he was "on duty 24 hours to begin with, fielding calls from the farm, agents, sometimes even customers". Likewise for V.C. Anthony of Kairali Orchids in Kochi. Orchid farming in Kerala, in fact, began with A.V. Thomas & Co making imported hybrids like Emma White and Sonia No. 17 available to housewives to grow in their backyards!
The demand, however, proved too exciting, the climatic conditions too conducive, and the plants did so well, these entrepreneurships of passion soon expanded into large-scale, commercial ventures. ICL Flora Exotica is today a sprawling seven-acre farm with a Rs 2 crore turnover and over 70,000 imported hybrid orchid plants comprising mokaras, oncidiums, dendrobiums, arandas and arantheras. "If we put 200 spikes in the market in '94, 50 would be left," says Anita, Himatsingka's wife and supervisor of ICL Flora Exotica. "Now we put 50,000 and it's mopped up."
Similarly, NSL today has around 7.5 lakh plants and plans to expand its farm from 15 acres to 30 acres by 2001. Besides supplying the domestic market, they export hybrid orchids to Dubai, Kuwait and even traditional growers like the UK, Italy, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and the US.
In this context, ICL Flora Exotica's experience with Singapore hybrid mokaras is particularly exciting. Difficult to grow, mokara plants have almost been completely phased out commercially in Singapore. But with ICL, they've been a success story. Possibly the only farm growing mokaras on a large scale in India, ICL started with 50 to 60 plants imported from Singapore in '93. They now have over 25,000. Ironically, Singapore now buys back most of their mokara spikes.
These success stories are ubiquitous. Most orchid farms in India started off with tie-ups with Singaporean or Malaysian companies for technical know-how. Now most of these farms can propagate the plants themselves and no longer need to rely on imports. As Aruna Lal, florist at The Oberoi, one of the largest consumers of orchids in Delhi, says cheerfully: "Our dependence on the foreign product has become completely negligible."
With this, profit too has become temptingly high. Cut flowers from Val Orchids in Bombay fetch an export price of $1.20 (Rs 50) for a single small spike; $2.50 (Rs 100) for an extra large single spike. And $4.80 (Rs 200) for a pack of five small spikes; $8.20 (Rs 400) for a pack of five extra large spikes (determined by length of stalk and number of blooms).
Not all of this, however, is a fairytale. As Himatsingka points out, orchid growing is a very high-risk industry which requires relentless monitoring of temperature, moisture, light and fertilisers. Foggers, pesticides, planting materials-everything has to be just right. "The farm never sleeps," says he. Also, unlike other flowers, an orchid farm becomes commercially viable only three years after its inception.
There are other problems too; predictably, about government policies and infrastructure. Says Kenneth Valles, director, Val Orchids: "There's no orchid culture in India, unlike in the West where they're prized for their beauty. There's a lack of understanding about orchids here. They're treated like any other flower even by the National Horticultural Board." Vibhu Natarajan of NSL has similar grouses. The company had made a formal request to the state government to designate the region around the farm as agricultural land. Instead, an industrial park came up in the vicinity and the farm has to relocate.
The northeast is another case in point. A proverbial treasure house, its potential as a crucial commercial orchid-growing area has never been exploited. Barring a cymbadium farm in Arunachal Pradesh, there are no commercial orchid farms in the region. Fortunately though, after the success of ICL, according to Himatsingka, the Assam state government has recognised floriculture as a "major thrust area" and promised several incentives and tax benefits.
Post-harvesting facilities is the other bugbear. Ritu Sanghi, an orchid distributor in Delhi, outlines the problems of ignorance and lax cargo services, particularly at airports. Carefully packed boxes of prize orchids left out in the sun for a couple of hours could spell plain ruin. "The entire assembly line needs to be educated," says Himatsingka, dreaming of satellite farms that can work cooperatively. Valles agrees. "The trick is to market in a pool," says he. "Success in exporting is being able to deliver large quantities consistently."
Fulfilling this need for a larger, more organised industry seems highly possible as the entire coastal region, from Chennai to Kanyakumari, is perfect for growing tropical orchids. And the demand for the flower seems proportionate to the supply! But would-be orchid farmers might want to remember that orchid farming is for the passionate and the idiosyncratic.
Walk into the ICL orchidarium at Guwahati in the morning, and you'll hear piped music playing bhajans, pop and opera. The orchids are listening. Between 11 am and 3 pm, there's silence, an air of quietude about the workers. The orchids are sleeping. Orchid lovers believe that the flowers respond to Ôindulgence, care and love'. That might explain the abbreviations for the Himatsingkas' farm.