A handful of city floriculturists have made it big in the business. The writer visits some farms now waiting for the seasonal full bloom
Step out of Sanil KMP’s home in Perumbavoor and you step into a happy profusion of flowers and foliage. At his Ecofarms floriculture venture, bright red heliconias hang overhead amid teak and mahogany trees. From beneath rise wide leaves of alpinias, slender shoots of bamboo and bright pink flowers of torch ginger. Beside, under gentle shade, sit pretty anthuriums and potted orchids in neat rows, some with white petals, others more wild and exotic in yellow and purple.
September marks the close of lean months in the business, and the handful of long-time floriculturists in the city is gearing up for a season of full bloom.
For George Philip, his fancy for flowers began during his college days when he collected unusual varieties of roses on his Nedumbassery farm. To fund the hobby, he turned it commercial in 1977 as Fresh Cut and eventually moved from roses to bulbous plants and later, to orchids and anthuriums. The rage these days though, at weddings, hotels and for florists, is for heliconias, alpinias and costuses (spiral gingers) which are hence the primary produce of most floriculturists currently. George has over 400 species on his farm today. “They grow very well in tropical climates such as ours, and are mostly imported from Thailand and Singapore. They are also popular because they last for several days after cutting, and are desired both for their leaves as well as their flowers,” says Sanil.
A common logical method to flower farming is to intercrop, says Sanil. His farm was once a coconut plantation which he converted to cultivating flowers in 1994. Some coconut trees do still stand, alongside fruit trees like mangosteen and rambutan, as well as spices and nutmeg. The canopy of these trees provides the natural shade the tropical flowers require, says Sanil.
George intercrops his flowers with rubber at a 14-acre plot elsewhere. Plants like orchids and anthuriums are grown in open spaces under net-shaded houses. “There are plants that people cultivate for purely aesthetic value. But in a commercial setup we look at what can be sold — the foliage, the stems or the flowers. Intercropping helps you gain a long-term one-time income from the trees above, as well as a frequent income from the floriculture below,” says Sanil.
The practice also reduces the maintenance labour required since fallen leaves become mulch and manure for the flowering plants, says George. Poultry and cattle manure provide further enrichment. Irrigation is primarily through a wide-spread sprinkler system and some, like Sanil, are moving toward polyhouses that come with automated fertilizer, water and temperature regulating systems. Once sown, the plants grow for over seven years, so the chunk of the manual labour on flower farms comes at the harvesting stage.
For Sheila Thomas who runs Anaihta Gardens — a farm of only mokara orchids — in Kakkanad, the work is more labour-intensive with frequent spraying of plants needed. Sanil says, “We collect flowers twice or thrice a week since many wholesale dealers of flowers are regular customers. Otherwise, we collect in bulk for large orders as and when they come.”
The primary market for floriculturists in Kochi are buyers in metros — Mumbai, Delhi Kolkata and Bangalore. In the local off-season — June to August — George says he occasionally exports flowers to Amsterdam as well. Another large clientele are wedding planners in North India. George, for instance, has catered for Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan’s wedding. “The tougher order was Elizabeth Hurley and Arun Nayyar’s wedding where the theme was Indian-orange and they required 2,000 flowers in just that colour ,” says George.
Locally the demand is still for roses, he adds. “I started out with them and I can foresee that I will return to them. There are varieties of roses that are suitable for our climate and through cross-pollination, those varieties have been found. Currently, Kochi’s demand for roses is met from Bangalore, so there is an opportunity to fill that need here.”
Flower requests for events have urged many floriculturists to venture into allied projects such as event management, and landscape consulting, says Sanil, whose company does both. For the future, Sanil hopes to expand his land to include eco-tourism as well. Another area of development is in the sale of saplings. Sheila says she already has many clients who purchase top cuts or potted plants from here, not cut flowers. She adds, “I started out working with flowers in Kochi in 1993 because I grew up in Ooty and I didn’t know a life without flowers. Twenty years into the business, and I still do it out of love for flowers.”