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Flower power

Orchids are rare and expensive, right? The answer’s yes and no, if we are talking about Thai orchids that are farmed in industrial quantities and flown to different corners of the globe. You could step out to a flower shop in Calcutta and pick up a bouquet of 10 flowers at about Rs 300 — perhaps not enough to win your lady love.

If you’re after something rarer it might be time to pick the flowers closer home. How about Sikkim orchids? They come in gorgeous shades like peach, green, pink, yellow, burgundy and white; they’re rare and hugely sought after by those with an eye for the exotic. In fact, at the height of summer, you’ll have a tough time spotting them in most flower marts. Ask for huge profusions and they’ll have to be flown in on special demand.

“Even though Sikkim orchids are mostly winter flowers — available between October to March — they have caught people’s fancy with their colours and tenacity,” says Ajay Barua, vice president, Delhi Cut Flower Association. “Our customers were beginning to tire of the mass produced Thai orchids that are available round the year,” he adds.

If you’re looking for Sikkim orchids, don’t expect them to come cheap. At a mandi in Delhi, you may pick them up for anywhere between Rs 60-80 per stem but be prepared to part with a cool Rs 150 per stem at an upscale flower shop. And at the Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi, these orchids can go for as much Rs 300 per stem.

“The flowers have a niche clientele who don’t mind the cost,” says Aruna Lal, who’s in charge of Floral Designs, the flower shop in The Oberoi. Compare that with Thai orchids which can cost as little as Rs 6-Rs 8 per stem at a flower mandi and around Rs 30 at a local florist. Barua says he sells about 150 flowers a day when they are in season.

There are some technical differences between Thai and Sikkim orchids. Thailand supplies mostly the dendrobium variety of orchids (known for their sturdy stems and distinct colouring), mokara (star fish-shaped blooms) and oncidium (long lasting sprays of small, distinct flowers with often unique colour combinations and a pleasant fragrance).

By contrast, Sikkim is best known for its cymbidium orchids (known for their lovely fragrance and petite size), phalanopsis (resembling moths in flight) and dendrobium varieties. Says Pawan Goradia, Vice President, Ferns N Petals: “When imported from Holland or New Zealand, cymbidium orchids cost as much as $5-$7 (Rs 246-Rs 344 approximately) per stem while the Sikkim variant will cost anywhere between $2 and $2.5 (Rs 98.37-Rs 123.11 approximately) per stem. That’s reason enough for customers to root for the Sikkim flowers.”

Take a look at garment exporter Cristina Patnaik, who has a fetish for potted orchids — in white, yellow and pale pink — which usually last upto a month. “Some of the export quality Sikkim orchids (with normally 12 blooms on a stem) are comparable with the best in Europe,” she says.

So what accounts for the Sikkim orchid boom? According to Benjamin Ruchal, who handles the Sikkim Organics outlet in Delhi, the state has turned its attention to floriculture in a big way and has ambitious plans for the future. Also, remember that Sikkim orchids, if kept in a vase, can last between eight and 10 days and upto a fortnight when kept in artificially cool environs.

Besides, lots of families in Sikkim grow sub-tropical orchid varieties like phalanopsis, oncidium, dendrobium and cattleya. In fact, orchids can be spotted growing in Sikkim’s deeply wooded hills. It’s also the state flower.

Cymbidium orchids (which were once meant for local aristocrats, growing essentially in the palace gardens where it was introduced in the 1950s) are now being grown in east Sikkim to meet the demands. The flowers are also exported to Japan, Malaysia, Middle East, New Zealand and Singapore.

Ruchal says that Sikkim orchids often win prizes at flower shows. “Our hybrid varieties are bigger in size than the natural ones and they are often in a mix of colours ranging from yellow and peach to pink and yellow or purple and white. While the demand for white orchids escalates between March and April, the white and purple phalanospsis orchids fly off the shelves in May when they arrive at the outlet,” he adds.

Given the fact that the orchid is a hardy flower with a beauty to match, it is an instant hit with those who crave its mystique and charm.

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