The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Rare blossoms in foster care

Not long ago, Sikkim and Darjeeling, with fecund floral wealth, were veritable paradises for botanists. But with many of the 600 species of orchids having been declared endangered and many more threatening to follow suit, those days are on the verge of fading into misty memory.

“Orchids are a rage with the ‘green-thumb brigade’ everywhere on the globe,” says Vinod Yadav, divisional forest officer, wildlife. “The hardy plants with their vibrant flowers and unconventional growing strategy (on the trunks of other trees) are a gardener’s delight.”

Though law prohibits the collection and export of “wild parent stock”, a flourishing trade continues to satiate commercial demand. Clampdown drives have come a cropper in the face of growing market pressures.

“That is where I come in,” smiles Beena Agarwal, a doctorate from Ballygunge Science College. Her area of specialisation: micro propagation and tissue culture. Her plant of choice: orchids. Micro propagation refers to the growing of plants from shoot-tips or auxiliary buds of the ‘perfect mother’.

Placed in a controlled environment to promote rapid growth, the new plants bear all the traits of the original. Beena, an employee of the Spice Board of India, quit her job in the mid-90s to grapple with how to balance the conservation of endemic orchids and promote them as an ornamental plant.

Fortified with the knowledge of “true-method” cloning, with a nose for business opportunities and the urge to do her bit for nature, in 1994 she set up B.K. Biotech Pvt Ltd. “A mother solution of inorganic micro and macro elements with hormones, vitamins, amino acids, sugar and coconut water ensures a steady growth of the cuttings,” says Beena.

By maintaining a constant temperature between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius, a 100 per cent success rate is easy to achieve. Today, producing more than 2 million plants a year, her 2,000 sq ft farm on a highrise terrace in Dupleix Patty, Chandernagore, with more than 65 varieties, simulates the verdant vales of the Northeastern hills.

Beena sells her ‘creations’ in Agartala, Bangalore and Kerala, beside a few nurseries and florists in the city. Saplings are tagged at Rs 25 to Rs 50, plants at Rs 300 to 500 while the in-blossom variety fetches between Rs 1,500 and Rs 5,000.

“Orchids, having painfully slow procreation in the wild, also succumb to fungal attacks,” says Ashok Banerjee, a member of the Agro-Horticultural Society’s show committee.

“I might not be minting money but at least I have the satisfaction of slowing the wheels of a change for the worse, till more people join the struggle to save the ubiquitous species,” concludes Beena.

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