Commercial production of orchids in north Bengal is all set to become a reality with North Bengal University growing 35,000 saplings in an artificially controlled environment.
Two years back, the Centre for Agro-Business and Floriculture Management (COAFM) at the varsity took on the meticulous task of rearing around 1,35,000 saplings of four varieties of orchids — phalaenopsis, cattleya, dendrobium, oncidium — through tissue culture.
Although known for its orchids, north Bengal’s contribution to the domestic flower market is hardly 20 per cent.
The prime reason is the lack of raw materials (orchid saplings) in abundance to produce flowers in bulk.
If one ventures into mass production of orchids, the planting materials will have to be bought from tissue production centres in Pune and Bangalore and also from Holland and Australia, which increases the production cost tremendously.
The NBU established the state’s first tissue production centre for orchids to counter this expense.
Now 35,000 saplings are ready for sale and have already found buyers. The first consignment of 200 saplings of phalaenopsis has been bought by the country’s first orchid gene bank at Senapati district in Manipur.
“The region is known as the citadel of orchids owing to optimum conditions such as low temperature and high humidity. But apart from growing orchids to adorn our gardens or to exhibit in flower shows, we have not been able to commercially supply them in the domestic flower market, let alone the international market. In fact, the domestic flower market is satisfied with orchid supplies from South-East Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia,” said COAFM director Ranadhir Chakraborty.
Unavailability of enough planting material has come in the way of mass production. At present, growers propagate orchids through simple methods using cuttings and bulbs. But it is not possible to grow the flower in large numbers using these techniques.
“In tissue culture, millions of plants are produced from a single mother plant or a stock of plants. We have taken the initiative to bridge the gap in supply of planting materials to growers and subsequently, increase the delivery of fully-grown orchids in the domestic and international flower markets. The first lot of 1,35,000 orchid plantlets has been successfully produced in our laboratory, two years after we started the procedure of rearing them. Around 35,000 of the lot are in the automated green houses in fully hardened conditions,” said Chakraborty.
The Darjeeling hills are home to over 300 species of orchids like cymbidium and tropical orchids like phalaenopsis, cattleya, dendrobium and oncidium. These are found widely in the foothills of Siliguri, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar. The varieties of orchids grown in the region are known for their exotic and classy looks and have great demand in the hospitality sector like hotels and resorts, weddings and corporate events.
“The four varieties of orchids we have grown cost between Rs 350 and Rs 1,000 for a pot and Rs 100 to Rs 200 for a stem. From commercial point of view, tissue production centres can produce plants in any quantity throughout the year and the plants are free of virus and bacteria and less likely to succumb to diseases. This production method is suitable for orchids, as they are difficult to grow from seeds and cuttings in large amounts. With tissue culture, plants can be designed to order, for instance their height, colour and other features can be pre-determined. As such the plants are small and lightweight, they can be freighted easily and cheaply,” Chakraborty said.
Orchid growers admit to the constraints in the supply of planting material which hampers the steady production.
When Darjeeling Garden’s Private Limited, one of the largest entrepreneurs of orchid production in the region, undertook to grow 1 lakh cymbidiums in Mirik, they had to purchase the planting material from a tissue production centre in Holland and Australia.
“It is not feasible to get huge supplies of plantlets in one go as long distance haulage is a delicate process and the saplings tend to get damaged. We had to get these from Holland and Australia in several batches which raised the transportation cost. Because of such constraints, north Bengal contributes only 20 per cent of the total supply in the domestic market and less than 10 per cent in the international market,” said Rajesh Chowdhury, director of Darjeeling Gardens.
In order to build a steady market, there has to be a consistency in production, which is far from reality in the region, entrepreneurs said.
“There has to be a weekly production of at least 2,000 orchids to cater for the domestic market and 10,000 orchids for the international market. The production has to be consistent in order to build a market for orchids of north Bengal. But the production in the region is very low and fluctuates greatly which in turn hampers consistency of supply,” said Sunil Agarwal, the head of operations and marketing at Darjeeling Gardens.