Surrounded by elegant flower stems, Alex Tang is a man in the right place at the right time — an orchid lover in Taiwan.
Tang has always grown orchids in his spare time. Now, after retiring from a job as an engineer in the US, he has returned to his native Taiwan to turn his hobby into a business.
The nation is a major flower exporter and two-thirds of the exports are of the phalaenopsis, or moth orchid. Exports of this orchid alone amount to US$110 million annually and the market is growing at 20 percent a year.
Foreign buyers flock to Tainan to attend the annual International Orchid Exhibition, held this year in February at an orchid plantation on the city’s outskirts.
It’s a fashion show for flowers — growers show off their latest creations in the hope that their bloom will be the next big thing.
“Globally, one out of three moth orchids comes from Taiwan. So this is a flagship industry in our agricultural sector,” Tainan Agriculture Bureau Director Kuo Yi-pin (郭伊彬) said.
However, engineering orchids involves an amount of unpredictability.
“When you crossbreed two orchids, they can produce a wide variety of new orchids,” Kuo said. “You won’t ever know what a new flower looks like until it finally blooms.”
This, along with long propagation times, is challenging for producers.
It can take eight years for a new variety to be ready for market and it is difficult for growers to forecast which colors or designs will interest fickle consumers.
And growing the perfect bloom requires more than just green fingers.
“The temperature, humidity and light must all be strictly controlled,” Tang said from his orchid farm near the exhibition center. “We use computer systems to do this. For example, if it’s too hot, fans will automatically be activated.”
Tang’s “farm” is a large greenhouse in an industrial park alongside the buildings of other orchid producers.
At the entrance, a series of computer panels along one wall control the climate. Inside, hundreds of thousands of plastic-potted seedlings are arranged on metal benches in rows that end in massive exhaust fans.
In one cluster, a small number of orchids are already in bloom, a sign that the temperature is too warm, Tang said. The plants were not meant to blossom until after they’d been exported to buyers overseas.
Innovation is one of Taiwan’s strengths and exhibitions are an integral part of expanding the nation’s position in the worldwide orchid trade.
“In Taiwan they have more breeders and more seedlings, so, for the new varieties we have to be here,” said Arno Turk, a wholesale flower seller from Holland.
While Holland, a major competitor for the moth orchid market, is good at creating more resilient plants, Turk is drawn to Taiwan each year by the range of colors on offer.
“When you look back over the last 10 years, it’s unbelievable [to see] what kinds of colors are coming up now,” said fellow flower connoisseur, Karl-Heinz Lapornik, who works for a German orchid producer.
“A couple of years ago you had mostly white ones or striped ones, a more or less boring color assortment,” he said.
This year, the exhibition center’s pavilions were filled with a spectrum of vibrant pinks, velvety purples, yellows with a dash of red and purple-dotted creams.
In his greenhouse, Tang was working on a golden-yellow variety — still a rarity in the orchid market. He admitted that he was yet to make back the money he had invested.