Everyday, orchids growing in Flora Exotica, the orchidarium located on the India Carbon Limited (ICL) campus, listen to songs by Lata Mangeshkar, Anup Jalota, Jagjit Singh, Ghulam Ali and Pankaj Udhas. ICL is a company producing petroleum coke in Guwahati. Spread over three hectares, the orchid plantation area is dotted with sound boxes attached to a hi-fi music system of a 1,000 watts. Every morning (6 am-9 am) and evening (3 pm-5 pm) the sound system plays devotional songs, ghazals, religious chants and even instrumental music to the orchids.
"Orchids, like other plants, like to listen to music. The music is essential for their growth and flowering. The vibration of the music helps in the growth of the buds of the plants," says Dr K N Bhagawati, former head of plant pathology at Assam Agricultural University. Bhagawati has been associated with the ICL plantation for the last 12 years. Music was introduced in the orchidarium in 1997, six years after it was set up.
Research indicates that plants thrive if soothing music is played in the background. However, they shrivel and die if exposed to loud and heavy music. Almost 30 years ago, a woman teaching at Colorado University (USA) conducted several experiments on plants and concluded that plants thrived while listening to classical music - particularly the sitar. Recently, a Japanese company created a gadget - Plantone - that gauges the electrical activity in plants and can register a plant's response when exposed to music. The device has two sensor clips that are attached to the leaves of the plant.
Flora Exotica is the first floriculture unit in the northeast established for the cultivation and propagation of the finest and most suitable varieties of orchids, especially hybrid orchids. It has 100,000 individual orchid plants. The market value of a mature flowering plant ranges from Rs 1,000-1,500 (1US$=Rs 44).
The climatic conditions in the northeast are ideal for the cultivation of orchids. Exotic species bloom in profusion in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Out of 1,150 species of orchids found in India, more than 700 grow in the northeast. The North Cachar Hills of Assam are home to 400 species of orchids.
Taking advantage of the agro-climatic condition of the otherwise trouble-torn region, ICL launched this unique project in 1991. Today it has 1,600 plants of 23 different varieties of indigenous orchids, which include Dendrobium Genting Red, Dendrobium Sonia, Dendrobium White and Aranthera Anne Black. The company initially also imported hybrid plants from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.
Flora Exotica packs the orchids in specially designed boxes and sends them to Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore - four metros where the demand is growing by the year. Representatives from USA, Japan, UAE and New Zealand have also visited the orchidarium and shown interest in importing orchids.
"There is a great demand for orchids in the international market. If planned well, the orchid business can help improve the unemployment problem in the northeast," says Navajyoti Dolakasharia, an agriculture science graduate who works in the orchidarium.
"Although our land (northeast) is the natural habitat of orchids, the gene bank has not been used to its fullest to develop new hybrids to meet the market demand. The advantage of hybrid orchids varies from longer life span to high productivity," says Professor Bhagawati.
So far, ICL has invested over Rs 20 million in its floriculture unit. Rakesh Himatsingka, Chairman and Managing Director of ICL, says, "The northeast, with its fertile soil and suitable climate, can contribute immensely to floricultural production in the country. I am sure such efforts will help in creating avenues for sustainable growth of entrepreneurship which will lead to large-scale job opportunities in our economically underdeveloped region."