Orchidelirium is a word that was coined to signify the Victorian obsession for the stunningly beautiful orchids and its origin coincided with the commercial production of cheap plate glass in England, which made greenhouses viable in wealthy homes. Botanists struck by orchid fever would have special kits designed to take with them on their forays into tropical or Himalayan jungles, from where they carried back hundreds of orchid species to England. Initially, only a minuscule percentage of these delicate plants survived the ocean voyage, and so the ones that did were more cherished than ever. The thrill of illegally venturing into forbidden or dangerous territory to cull these jewels captured the imagination of an entire country, and was coveted by botanical treasure hunters, poachers and smugglers.
By the 1920s, the mania was entering popular culture and Art Nouveau-style orchid motifs embellished vases, brooches, wall tiles, clocks and wallpaper. Cartier and Rene Lalique’s orchid jewels were a statement in craftsmanship. Growing orchids became a status symbol – these highly-prized ornamentals were largely kept indoors, as the flowers often bloomed for long periods over weeks or even months. As a rule, the fleshier the petals of the orchids, the longer they lasted.
A unique, global plant
Orchids are both terrestrial (they grow in the ground) and epiphytic, in that they draw their nourishment from the air and do not require soil. Terrestrials are hardier and grow in clumps in shaded areas of the garden, but are not as spectacular as epiphytes. In addition, depending on the geographical zone, they could be tropical and temperate. Orchids have a highly-evolved reproductive system with male and female organs fused into a column. They are self-pollinating, and have a landing pad for pollinating insects called labellum.
The most valuable orchid in terms of commercial propagation is vanilla, which grows to resemble a creeper. This spice is only next to saffron in terms of price chiefly because the vanilla orchid must be laboriously hand-pollinated to produce the bean. So the next time you enjoy a delicious scoop of vanilla ice cream, do spare a thought for the farmer performing the duty of a pollinating insect, flower by flower, and quite quickly because the vanilla orchid blooms for less than a day. Even so, it is a very profitable proposition, and India, though relatively new to growing it, has increased the area under cultivation exponentially since the 1990s.
Kerala, Karnataka and some regions of Goa are seriously cultivating vanilla today, in farms of small holdings. The most conducive habitat is in Karnataka and it is gaining popularity among urban gardeners in Bengaluru but also in Cochin.
Anjali Nair, a Bengaluru resident and orchid collector, said, “There are so many varieties of epiphytes, with new strains being created through hybridisation, I feel I can never have enough. They are so beautiful and through experience I find each plant communicates to me when either the light or moisture requirements are not perfect.”
Growing epiphytes in a city like Bengaluru is perfect for vertical gardening in indirect light. Nair mounts orchids on planks nailed to trees, or slings them in aerating basketwork plastic pots in a simple medium of wood charcoal. The growing medium must be of coarse enough texture to allow easy drainage, and the basketwork encourages roots to emerge and not be pot-bound. In the summer, she adds sphagnum moss to increase moisture content. Orchids love rainwater and, at the right temperature, they look after themselves.
Atindra Chaturvedi has a taste for rare hybrids and uses specially developed coarse orchid compost, and an indoor light-controlled environment. He is an enthusiast for uncommon orchids developed through crossing several strains, such as a jet-black bloom, rarely seen even in orchid parks. Fragrance is another criterion that dictates his collection in New Jersey, which has evolved far beyond the common ladies’ slipper or cymbidium varieties.
A great deal of potential
The North Eastern states – especially Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Sikkim – provide a natural habitat to more than 500 varieties of chiefly epiphytic orchids. The government in Sikkim set up an orchid research centre where new strains of cymbidiums are being developed and propagated. And while the Sikkim tourism industry is also creating nature walks and expeditions in forests to view orchids in their natural habitat, the commercial potential of orchids in the rich biodiversity of the North East has not yet been realised. What is vital is that forests with orchids in their natural habitat be protected from poachers. Botanical tours should be sufficiently advertised or arranged.
Small farmers, half of whom are women, are earning well through the growth of ornamental orchids for the Indian floriculture market. However, a lot needs to be done in the post-harvest chain for marketing, especially for exports. Work also needs to be stepped up in the area of propagation, as North Eastern orchids, especially in the Khasi hills, have been ruthlessly exploited in the wild. Nepalese forests have been similarly stripped. Though botanists and scientists have made efforts to speed up propagation, especially in-vitro, in the last decade, what is required in commercial cultivation of orchids are refrigerated transportation, better packaging and airlifting.
My own introduction to orchids was through reading about the lives of authors I admire. For example, Vladimir Nabokov loved both butterflies and orchids. John Fowles always mentions ground orchids in his books, and was something of a smuggler of orchids himself. My favourite is Rex Stout’s fictional detective Nero Wolfe, a great lover of orchids who was loath to leave his plants and the New York brownstone where he grew them. Over 34 murder mysteries, Wolfe rarely left home, leaving all the legwork of crime-solving to his assistant Archie Goodwin. Of course, the latter also had the additional duty of pollinating Wolfe’s orchid collection. And only a black orchid tempted Wolfe to leave home – so rare was the colour.
Selina Sen is the author of Gardening in Urban India, DK, Penguin-Random House.