by ACB Petiyagoda

A few weeks ago, this newspaper published an interesting article by Sunela Jayewardene on the book “Wild Flowers of Sri Lanka” by Aritha Wikramanayake. Maybe it’s not the first book on the subject or the last, because I remember seeing a book in the mid-1970s by, I believe, Mrs. Dorothy Fernando. I don’t remember how skillfully she handled the subject, but I clearly remember the near-perfect pencil drawings she made of many wildflowers.

At the beginning of the last century, the Ministry of Agriculture published bulletins on subjects relating to its functions, such as the “Preliminary List of Pests of Cultivated Plants of Ceylon 1923”. He also published “A Handbook of Weeds of the Principal Crops of Ceylon.” It may therefore be reasonably assumed that a paper on wildflowers has been published by these worthy dedicated scientists.

Interestingly, all of the department’s senior staff in 1923 were Europeans – Stockdale, Petch, Hutson, Park, Gadd, etc. The only Ceylonese were Dr. AWR Joachim, office assistant (later director of agriculture and still later director of the Ceylon Tea Research Institute) and JN Culanatharvalu, chief clerk. The government printer was H. Ross Cottle.

At that time, and in fact until around the 1960s, cut flowers had very little or no commercial value. Cultivated flowers consisted mainly of roses, barbatans, arums, gladioli and somewhat later anthuriums. These were grown mainly at high altitudes for the beautification of gardens and for indoor vases.

Flowers were available for sale at malsalawa or better named malagiya salaws – the places of business of funeral directors who are now frequently called funeral directors! Towards the end of the 1950s, Colombo had two or three exclusive flower shops, therefore also a growers’ cooperative. One of the flower shops specializing in white Cattleyas, very popular with wealthy brides.

Those who wanted them so much were charged up to Rs 500 per flower! Just to give an idea of ​​their price, it suffices to recall that a gallon of gasoline then cost Rs 7.50, a cigarette. 08 cents, a coconut 0.75 cents, an egg 60 cents, a pound of white sugar 75 cents. There were then only a handful of such cultivators or hobbyists who grew Dendrobiums and Vandas and occasionally killed, while jealously guarding the paying hobby.

While this was the situation at the time in Ceylon, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and to some extent Indonesia, growers had practically acres of orchids transporting their products by boat and truck to the warehouses of the buyers/exporters. It was and still is a big deal between a large number of producers, buyers and exporters. They had reached a stage where they were almost in overproduction and had to cut production costs to stay afloat.

One such method was to mix mixtures of cattle and pig manure, urine, water from young coconuts and even tomato juice, as they found the small amounts of easy-to-use chemical fertilizers too expensive. to apply. Moreover, in simple laboratories, hybridization continued at a rate that attracted and maintained the interest of buyers in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, France, etc.

They produced flowers and sprigs with desirable characteristics such as floriferous – flowering frequency, size, color, texture and shelf life. Many of the results of experiments conducted in these homes and backyards of the experimenters have been remarkably successful, given the simple inputs and facilities available most of the time to technicians without formal or scientific training.

Meanwhile, in our country, the few cultivators were like the proverbial frogs in the well, keeping to themselves what little they knew. They did not have the initiative to go out and learn although the funds for them were not a limiting factor.

In 1966, Ceylon Tobacco Co began development of ‘Navajeevana’ – a settlement program in Mahiyangana on 1,000 acres of jungle land leased from the government – an outstanding success that no private sector organization had achieved before or after. The company was then headed by its first and only Sri Lankan Chief Executive Officer, Mr. SV Wanigasekera. who have given agricultural diversification a prominent place in the company’s activities.

Its Haldumulla sugar cane project, carried out for the first time in Sri Lanka with the participation of sub-contractors, was another success. In less than two years from its inception in 1973, this project had more than 700 small producers cultivating more than 1,200 acres of sugar cane and processing more than a ton of jaggery per day to meet demand when imported sugar was scarce in the country. mid 1970s.

More than a decade after the arrival of the UNP government in 1977, “Ceylon Tobacco Co has transformed, encompassing a range of businesses from trading, financial services and agriculture to horticulture and Therefore, in 1979, CTC embarked on a major project to cultivate and market orchids which were among the rarest and most prized flowers of all.

“The intention was to develop the export of cut flowers and to foster a new agro-industry that would bring in foreign currency. Orchid cultivation was previously the preserve of a very elite social circle and it was hoped that the new industry would benefit a multitude of small farmers and part-time growers.

To start the cut flower industry with the participation of a large number of small growers, the company found it useful to discuss this aspect with the dozen or so known orchid enthusiasts. To a man they opposed the very idea of ​​​​declaring that the cultivation of orchids needed highly qualified personnel to provide the necessary care that ordinary growers could not give.

When told that the company had by then trained around 15,000 growers in tobacco plant nursery management, cultivation and barn drying, the argument died down. From that point on there was no turning back, an extensive nursery was established in Kalagedihena and visits were made to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia for initial stocks of mother planting material.

These overseas travel opportunities were used to study the finer aspects of the business. A modern tissue culture laboratory, the first of its kind in the private sector, has been established in Kalagedihena, staffed with highly trained personnel to mass-produce selected varieties of orchids. In 1982, there were 2,000 producers, mainly in Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara districts. They were sold an initial stock of plants in three growth stages – flowering, medium and small plants in thumb pots, and to guide them, a team of twenty-five trained field workers visited them at intervals. closer.

Early growers were granted a loan of Rs 3,000 each by the Bank of Ceylon and later a group called ‘big growers’ were granted loans of Rs 20,000 each to grow Aranda Christines exclusively. Growers were required to sell their products to the company, which most did, while a few sold theirs to other florists who moved into the developing market.

Some of them, particularly on the west coast from Chilaw to just beyond Panadura, are now exporters to Europe and the Middle East and suppliers of orchids to hundreds of hotels , local offices, shops and homes. Here is a brief history of the commercial cut flower industry in the island, begun by the Ceylon Tobacco Company and followed by others.

To conclude this fascinating story of the cut flower industry in Sri Lanka, an observation by Hon. Lalith Athulathmudali, Minister of Commerce and Shipping (1983) follows: “I was at the Kuwait Hilton the other day when they received a large stock of orchids.. The entire batch was from the Ceylon Tobacco Company. It was a matter of pride to say that these orchids were from Sri Lanka.

(All quotes are from Tobacco, Agriculture and Land by Dr. Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda)

(This article by the late ACB Pethiyagoda was first published in this journal on February 26, 2012. The writer, a professional tea planter, finished his career at the Ceylon Tobacco Co. where he worked and managed operations related to agriculture.)


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