Sikkim cashes in on its unique orchids

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

Pakyang/Gangtok : The flowers light up patches of the dense green forests in elegant huddles of yellow, ochre, mauve, powder blue and lemony green on slopes 5,000 feet above sea level. Described as the “natural glory” of the Himalayan state of Sikkim, the Cymbidium orchid is increasingly being projected as the state’s flori-sustenance – the heartbeat of its booming flower trade.

Support TwoCircles

The Cymbidium is the most common species of orchids that survive extremes of nature to live longer as cut flowers (with nipped stalks) in the vase in Sikkim and other northeastern states, home to nearly 600 varieties of wild orchids.

The global spotlight turned on the Cymbidium orchid – the theme of the Sikkim International Flower Show 2013 during Feb 23-27 in state capital Sikkim – with colourful showcases by orchid growers and international workshops on the species.

“Our flower power is the Cymbidium orchid. Most of the Cymbidium varieties that you see in the world today are the hybridized varieties of the flowers taken from this region by the British nearly 100 years ago,” Sikkim’s horticulture secretary Shanta Pradhan told IANS.

Unlike elsewhere in the world, the Cymbidium orchid and the related species in the region grow in natural habitats, the official said.

It took a century for Sikkim and the northeastern region to realize the potential of Cymbidium, together with five other orchids – Dendrobium, Vanda, Cattleya, Phalaenopsis and Oncidium – as revenue earners, he said.

“Flowers became a commercial prospect for us 10 years ago. It is a late start but is turning out to be a promising sector,” Pradhan said.

Sikkim annually produces Rs 20 million worth of orchids on an average. A cut stalk (floret) costs between Rs.20 and Rs.150 depending on the quality.

The state government has introduced a special package in 18 clusters under which 50 flori-farmers have been given 500 orchid plantings (saplings) each with necessary support for cultivation, training and marketing.

“We are also assisting 1,000 more farmers for growing orchids outside the scheme. Nearly 50 percent of the orchid farmers are women,” the bureaucrat said.

The state has to overcome several challenges to send the produce out to the national market, Pradhan said.

“The first hurdle is transportation to the nearest marketplace. An effective cold chain is another area of concern. We require refrigerated vans to the cold storages and then fly the flowers out. During monsoon, when the roads are blocked by landslides, transporting the flowers to markets in New Delhi and Kolkata becomes difficult,” Pradhan said, adding that an “airport by 2014-end in the state will ease the ferry-block”.

Orchids and other horticultural products are marketed by SIMFED – the government’s national sales network. “The demand is growing. In the last wedding season, we could not meet the demand. We need more marketing support,” the official said.

Veteran flower trader Andy Warren, managing director of the New Zealand-based company Bloomz, said that Sikkim and the northeastern states – the country’s traditional orchid hothouses – should concentrate on the domestic market and explore its “optimal capacity” for high returns instead of eyeing bigger export share globally.

“This region lacks post-harvest facilities like good packaging houses and cold storages. The summer gets too hot and logistics to move the harvested products are inadequate. Flowers like orchids wilt. The region needs to look at expanding markets in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. They fetch good prices. The critical thing is to ensure top quality in the market every day,” Warren, who has been trading flowers with India for the last 20 years, told IANS at the Sikkim International Flower Show 2013.

Going to the international market is a “whole new ball game” with its stringent set of standards, Warren said.

“India is a country of small land holdings – orchid growers in the region must recognise the fact and rework their stragtegies for markets close by,” said the flower expert, who has been invited to assist the Sikkim government in consolidating floral trade in an
advisory capacity.

The National Research Centre for Orchids – a Sikkim government-aided facility at Pakyong, 12 km from Gangtok – has developed four new hybrid varieties of orchids from the tissues of the 2005-2006 crop to help the state compete with states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Assam and Orissa in the national market, its director, R.P. Medhi, said.

Citing figures, Medhi said the research centre has since 1996 – when it opened – collected and preserved 850 species of the 1,300 orchids in the region. “Our mandate now is to conserve orchids, catalogue their molecular characterisation, enrich cultivation and check bio-piracy,” Medhi told IANS.

Research in orchids across the country are being carried out in 12 projects of the National Research Centre for Orchids and five externally-funded projects.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])