A flow­er­ing trade: Tai­wanese or­chids to bloom in desert coun­tries of the Mid­dle East

Last year, Tai­wan’s orchid grow­ers ex­ported pot­ted or­chids and seedlings worth NT$4.1 bil­lion to 36 coun­tries around the globe. Now they are eye­ing the rich mar­kets of the Mid­dle East


Ev­ery spring, the Tai­wan In­ter­na­tional Orchid Show at­tracts tens of thou­sands of orchid lovers and in­dus­try ex­perts from around the globe. Hud­dled away amid lush green rice pad­dies, guava plan­ta­tions and melon fields in the ru­ral town of Houbi in South­ern Tai­wan, the 3,500 square me­ter ex­hi­bi­tion venue greets a steady stream of visi­tors.

This year, the orchid in­dus­try posted sev­eral new records:

First, Tai­wan’s “ever bloom­ing” orchid king­dom bol­stered its world-lead­ing po­si­tion by adding Aus­tralia and Brazil as ex­port mar­kets. Mean­while, Tai­wanese or­chids are be­ing ex­ported to 36 coun­tries in North Amer­ica, North­ern Europe, and South Africa. Next, the is­land’s orchid grow­ers hope to bring their beau­ti­ful cre­ations to In­dia, Iran, Dubai and even as far away as the French Pa­cific is­land of Re­union.

Sec­ond, in the show’s eleventh year, Tai­wanese orchid ex­ports con­tin­ued to post new record sales. What be­gan with mod­est ex­ports in the or­der of US$23 mil­lion per year in 2004 has since grown to an an­nual ex­port value of more than US$130 mil­lion (about NT$4.1 bil­lion).

Third, Tai­wan re­cently won its bid to host the 23rd World Orchid Con­fer­ence in 2020. In the orchid in­dus­try, the tri­en­nial con­fer­ence is the equiv­a­lent of the Olympic Games. That Tai­wan was awarded the right to host this in­ter­na­tional event un­der­lines the fact that the ef­forts of Tai­wan’s orchid grow­ers have won in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion.

The suc­cess of breed­ing the in­dige­nous pha­laenop­sis (moth orchid) species shows that Tai­wanese agri­cul­tural prod­ucts are mar­ketable and com­pet­i­tive on a global scale. How­ever, the in­dus­try’s rise did not come overnight and not with­out a few hic­cups. Tai­wan’s orchid grow­ers had to over­come nu­mer­ous chal­lenges along the way.

Eight years ago, pha­laenop­sis or­chids from the Nether­lands en­joyed a mar­ket boom, and many in­dus­try in­sid­ers feared at the time that a cer­tain Dutch com­pany could de­feat Tai­wan as the world’s lead­ing orchid ex­porter. This year brought another chal­lenge when the United States ap­proved im­ports of pha­laenop­sis or­chids from China un­der the same con­di­tions as Tai­wanese im­ports (with sphag­num moss as grow­ing medium).

Con­tin­ued chal­lenges have kept orchid breed­ers on their toes. Yet Tai­wan’s orchid in­dus­try re­mains in good shape, un­fazed by grow­ing global com­pe­ti­tion. What can Tai­wan’s agri­cul­tural in­dus­try learn from the suc­cess of the orchid breed­ers?

Ad­vanced Breed­ing


In March, Com­mon­Wealth Mag­a­zine re­porters joined buy­ers and grow­ers from 36 coun­tries on their tour of the Tai­wan In­ter­na­tional Orchid Show. De­fy­ing the trop­i­cal tem­per­a­tures and high hu­mid­ity of the green­houses, the visi­tors were ea­ger to see the splen­dor of the latest orchid nov­el­ties with their own eyes. This year, the vast out­door park area fea­tured or­chids in red, blue and gold. Paths lined with vi­brant orchid dis­plays led to the theme pavil­ions.

The show’s main theme this year was the con­ser­va­tion of na­ture. In­dige­nous orchid species were pre­sented against the back­drop of dif­fer­ent land­scapes with wa­ter fea­tures, moun­tains and val­leys.

In another ex­hi­bi­tion hall, artis­tic orchid sculp­tures and dis­plays as well as spe­cial species vied for the at­ten­tion of the visi­tors. “This event is very im­por­tant be­cause it’s one of the top three orchid ex­po­si­tions. I’ve been here five times, and ev­ery time I come back, there’s some­thing new. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see all the dif­fer­ent species. It all starts here,” re­marks Jo­han Her­mans, chair­man of Bri­tain’s Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety Orchid Com­mit­tee, in a dis­play of ad­mi­ra­tion for the po­ten­tial and di­ver­sity of Tai­wanese orchid nov­el­ties.

One buyer from Europe searches for the best an­gle to take pic­tures of the orchid ex­trav­a­ganza. “I’ve got only three hours, but it’s so beau­ti­ful that I want to see all the ex­po­si­tions,” the orchid en­thu­si­ast ex­claims.

How does Tai­wan com­pare with the Nether­lands in the eyes of in­ter­na­tional buy­ers and breed­ers? Andy Do­herty, CEO at Pa­cific Wide (NZ) Ltd., which makes or­ganic grow­ing media un­der the brand Bes­grow, flew in from New Zealand. Do­herty be­lieves that Tai­wan and the Nether­lands are the two key com­peti­tors in the Euro­pean orchid mar­ket. He feels that Tai­wan’s strengths are breed­ing, nov­elty, new orchid va­ri­eties and di­ver­sity, as even the Nether­lands wants to learn from Tai­wan in these ar­eas. On the other hand, Tai­wan could learn from Dutch pro­duc­tion tech­nolo­gies. If the is­land’s grow­ers com­bined both, the in­dus­try would be­come even more dy­namic.

How can Tai­wan’s orchid in­dus­try en­sure con­tin­ued in­no­va­tion?

Sogo Team Co. Ltd., Ping­tung

Our first stop in our quest for in­dus­try in­no­va­tors is orchid breeder Sogo Team Co. Ltd. in the town of Lin­luo in Ping­tung County. CEO John Feng notes that over­seas buy­ers gen­er­ally hail Tai­wan’s skills in de­vel­op­ing new va­ri­eties. How­ever, the orchid grow­ers had to tread a long and ar­du­ous road be­fore their busi­ness blos­somed into the ro­bust and healthy in­dus­try it is to­day.

While elec­tron­ics mak­ers churn out a new gen­er­a­tion of prod­ucts ev­ery year, it takes up to a decade to breed a new orchid va­ri­ety and bring it to mar­ket.

Feng points out that af­ter a new hy­brid has been bred from two dif­fer­ent orchid va­ri­eties, 300 plants are prop­a­gated through tis­sue cul­ture in a nu­tri­ent medium in flasks or test tubes un­der ster­ile con­di­tions. It will take one year to 18 months be­fore these young or­chids pro­duce flow­ers.

Fol­low­ing a six-month test­ing pe­riod, dur­ing which the plants are eval­u­ated for sta­ble growth and flow­er­ing, another pi­lot batch of 3,000 plants is prop­a­gated over three or four years. Each cus­tomer re­ceives 300 sam­ples to test the mar­ket for one to two years. Only if the new orchid va­ri­ety is re­ceived well in the tar­get mar­ket and the cus­tomer is sat­is­fied with the plant’s prop­er­ties can pro­duc­tion in large quan­ti­ties be­gin, which takes another two years. Over­all, the en­tire cy­cle from breed­ing to mass pro­duc­tion takes nearly a decade.

How­ever, there is no guar­an­tee that the mar­ket will ac­cept new orchid va­ri­eties. Point­ing to­ward the myr­i­ads of pha­laenop­sis in his green­house, Feng notes, “We de­velop con­tin­u­ously to make in­ter­na­tional cus­tomers no­tice the di­ver­sity and R&D ca­pa­bil­i­ties for new va­ri­eties that Tai­wan’s orchid breed­ers of­fer. But less than five per­cent of va­ri­eties make it from test­ing to real com­mer­cial­iza­tion; the re­main­ing 95 per­cent are elim­i­nated. “

The goal of these breed­ing ef­forts is to re­lease dif­fer­ent prod­ucts to win new mar­kets. De­scrib­ing cus­tomer pref­er­ences in Europe, Feng says, “Tai­wan’s got it rough. Even if our and their (Dutch grow­ers) or­chids are the same, the Euro­pean cus­tomers will still not pick the Tai­wanese or­chids. Tai­wan has to de­velop or­chids that are clearly bet­ter than the Dutch ones just to com­pete.”

How­ever, Tai­wan must vie with the Nether­lands not only in the area of orchid va­ri­eties but also in terms of ser­vice and global reach.

Story con­tin­ues on page 6


A model dis­plays orchid flow­ers dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in Taipei on March 3, 2014.

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