Orchids Spark Debate (National Geographic Indonesia, September 2007)

By Titik Kartitiani   |   Photographs by Jerry Aurum

Paphiopedilum gigantifolium

Take a look at the beauty of a ladyslipper orchid arrangement, two crowns stretching to the left and to the right of the dorsal sepal that stands upright and a strange flower lip, like the ladyslipper of Goddess Venus. The exotic flower is supported by a hairy stalk that stands upright at the height of about three fourth of the height of the plant. Because of the unusual flower lip, the plant with a very short stalk is included in the family of Paphiopedilum that is of two generic names derived from two words: Paphos and pedilon.  The first refers to an island in Cyprus believed to be Venus’ birth of place and pedilon means ladyslipper in Greek.  Some researches call it Venus orchid, while some Indonesian collectors call it pocket orchid. Because it presents special flower parts, the ladyslipper orchid has attracted orchid lovers, collectors and researchers all over the world. Some of them are ever crazy for her. You will have the same feeling.

The beauty is enough to stimulate the exploration and adventure instincts of orchid collectors and lovers. They entered the thick tropical forest, looking for various types of the ladyslipper orchid that grow in tree branches, cliffs and on the land, along with locals who served as their guides and who helped them pick the flower.

In the end, the hunting tale gave birth to an atmosphere of competition and intrigues. They went to the island of Kalimantan that has 12 species of ladyslipper orchid, the third largest in the world after China (18 species) and Thailand (13 species). Meanwhile with only four species, Java Island has the rare endemic icons of West Java and East Java highlands: Paphiopedilum glaucophyllum.

Compared to popular orchids like Dendrobium, Vanda and Phalaenopsis, the ladyslipper orchid is rarely found in a large group in its original habitat. It is very difficult for this type of orchid to produce seeds and the growth of the seedlings is quite slow. That’s why it becomes the target of orchid collectors and lovers, who feel the challenge to cultivate and graft it in their garden. Every ladyslipper orchid they found in the forest would be moved and become an experimental subject. It turned out that the hard work was fruitful.

The success story prompted me to visit Ciwidey District, at the outskirt of southern Bandung, West Java. I met Sjahrizal Siregar who was successful in cultivating ladyslipper orchid from the nature in his orchid garden located 1,450 meters above the sea level. Called Regar Orchids, the garden is also home to various types of orchids that grow in pots arranged in neat pattern and cleanliness.

The serious-looking, medium-height and firmly-built Siregar is a man who is respected among orchid cultivators and collectors. The 56-year-old man proudly told his experiences in cultivating the Venus’ ladyslipper plants. Since early 1990s, he had tried to counter the idea that Paphiopedilum, which needs complicated care, could only be multiplied outside its habitat with sophisticated green house technology. Siregar’s success forced me to give him complement. At a garden corner, in the shade of the fruit star tree that produced no fruit, a ladyslipper orchid of Paphiopedilum javanicum grew healthily like bushes covering the brown color of the soil, along with  nepenthes (kantong semar) plants from forests in South Bandung.

“I was only thinking about creating an environment like in the forest where they came from. And the place looks like this,” he said, revealing his key to success. Besides, he needed two years to grow the ladyslipper orchid from the wildlife to the pot after finding the right media: zeolit, bamboo humus, and several other materials. It took him quite some time to find the right mixed media and he also had to sacrifice many principal trees for the Paphiopedilum that were uprooted from its natural habitat. It is understandable because like most orchid cultivators, Siregar has never enjoyed formal education in farming.

The cool area of Cikole Atas Village, Lembang District, north of Bandung seems to support the persistence of another orchid cultivator Ayub S. Parnata, who is also challenged to graft and cultivate ladyslipper orchid outside its habitat. I walked down the path leading to his garden that was built on 1.5 hectare terraced land. This garden is home to hundreds of unique orchids, including those resulted from the grafting and cultivation. I watched the blooming ladyslipper orchid of three types. All were beautiful and I don’t know how many times I expressed my admiration.

Born Yap Sian Too in 1932, Ayub is a special figure. The petit man looked fresh and energetic at his old age. Since he was a kid, he has been in love with plants, following the gardening hobby of his mother. That’s how Ayub started to love orchids and have the interest in collecting various types of the plant. Along with his 20 colleagues who also loved orchids, he joined a cultivation course in 1957.

“It can be said that it was the first orchid course in Indonesia. Both the participants and the teachers were still learning,” said Ayub, laughing.

Besides becoming a successful actor and a living witness of the orchid cultivation history in Indonesia, Ayub is also highly respected by orchid lovers and collectors because of his success in finding new types of the ladyslipper orchid. When the identification process ended, the name of Ayub and his child were mentioned in two types of the ladyslipper orchid: Paphiopedilum parnatanum and Paphiopedilum intaniae. That achievement made Ayub, one of the founders of the Indonesian Orchid Association, really proud.

Another orchid grower in the cool area of Pasuruan, East Java, also made achievement. In a garden called Simanis Orchids, in 1982 Ahmad Kolopaking managed to grow a ladyslipper orchid called Paphiopedilum kolopangkingii, which was actually found by an aggregator from inside the thickness of Kalimantan forest, until it bloomed.

What was special about the orchid was the fact that the stem had 14 flowers that could bloom together. Unfortunately, Ahmad’s achievement was abused by his son, Harto, who was caught red handed selling smuggled 216 stems of ladyslipper orchid to under covered officers and had to surrender to the law enforcers in California, United States of America, in September 1994. The court found Harto guilty of smuggling some 1,500 stems of the ladyslipper orchid from his family’s garden in Pasuruan to San Jose in the past two years. Harto was the first convicted Indonesian, sentenced to five months in jail for violating the Threatened Species Law in the U.S. I met him in his garden recently and he looked uncomfortable when I mentioned about the issue of orchid imports.

It is always interesting to talk about orchids. The first page of a long tale of orchids that told the story about the relations between human beings and this exotic plant opened in 1880s. At that time European aristocrats picked orchids from the wildlife and learned about how to grow them in a terrarium. Not long after that, European aristocrats, especially those from England, made a safari tour to the area of South America and Asia, to get various types of new plants. Of course there was then no regulation banning the picking of orchids which grew on tree branches, steep cliffs and forest floors. The collection mentality sometimes referred to the type of “orchid craziness” that could be seen since the relations started.

When the Dutch colonialized Indonesia, exploitation and exploration activities of orchid in the wildlife in various parts of the forests were also conducted freely and openly. The locals hunted and picked the orchids and then sent them to the Dutch botany experts. A note of W. Watson titled Orchids (1979) showed that the first scientific publication of tricolor Vanda dated back in 1847. The Javanese endemic plant had white flower with brown spots.

The activities of taking orchids from the nature were forced to decline since 1960s when an environment movement forced the issuance of regulations to protect wild orchids in their habitat. The third world countries realized that so far the heritage of their environment had been stolen by the rich Westerners. The main protection came from the 1973 Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES)––today it has been ratified by 172 countries. This international agreement that was based on the resolution of a World Conservation Union (IUCN) session in 1963 stipulated that any endangered species of plant or animal could not be commercially traded. Rare species which are not threatened could be moved from its original habitat and traded commercially, but those who do it must obey tightly-designed regulations to guarantee that there would not be any orchid species that would be threatened or even extinct.

Indonesia ratified CITES in 1978. In accordance with the convention rules, the government has appointed the Ministry of Forestry as the wild plants and animals conservation management authority for the license issuance, while the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) serves as the CITES science authority. The government regulation lists 29 types of protected nature orchids, including three species that is put in CITES list of Appendix I (could not be traded internationally) while the rest are put in Appendix II.

But Irawati, an orchid researcher from LIPI who is also head of the Bogor Botanical Garden, criticized the list. There are names of two plants which should not be listed: Dendrobium d’albertsii (synonym of Dendrobium antennatum) and Dendrobium catinecloesum.

“I have checked with other orchid experts, there is no orchid with a name of Dendrobium catinecloesum. Maybe it is mistyped,” the confused Irawati said to me.

Orchid collectors also questioned the list. They asked the ground for the protection status. There are several types of orchids which should not be included in the list. For instance: the black orchid Coelogyne pandurata.

As if representing his colleagues’ restlessness, Frankie Handoyo, an orchid cultivator from Jakarta, reasoned that the cultivation of black orchid was not difficult. It could be multiplied using the technique of separating the seedlings and planting the seeds on the agar medium.  The inclusion of black orchid in the list as a protected species even triggered the drastic decline of black orchid population in its original habitat as it is continuously hunted for its pseudobulb to trade.  Several objections were made. “I have suggested the revision, but there is no action, pending other instruments,” Irawati said.

Until now, the taking of orchids from the wildlife continues amidst a debate about the existing regulation, including the protection status. Insisting on their views, all parties sharpen the endless debate while the pressure against nature orchids becomes more alarming.

Researchers tried to encourage the government and law enforcers to enforce the law to keep the nature orchids in their original habitat. On the other hands, orchid collectors and lovers believe that the greatest threat against the nature orchid population is the disappearing habitat as a result of escalating deforestation.

“When orchids are just abandoned in the forest, sometimes destroyed by forest fire or dumped by loggers, when that happens, what’s the use of orchids other than becoming humus?” asked Sjahrizal with a serious look.

Once again I had mixed feelings when meeting Wirakusuma Silamurti and Sutikno, orchid cultivators in Pasuruan, who fully supported the activities of orchid aggregators who were accused of disturbing the population of nature orchids.

“The government and the conservationists should thank the hunters; because of them new species were born,” said Wirakusuma.

He had every reason to talk like that because the name of his good friend, Sutikno, was mentioned in the new type of Dendrobium orchid thanks to the finding of a nature orchid by a hunter. “Several years ago, I got several Dendrobium orchids from a hunter in Morotai,” Sutikno told me in his garden, Royal Orchids.

In the beginning, Sutikno did not pay much attention to the orchids, but Wirakusuma was more observant: there were two branches with different flower parts. The crown was really long, three times of the flower’s length. This unique characteristic was not found in its closest relatives, Dendrobium lasianthera and Dendrobium lineale. Wirakusuma showed the orchids to Peter O’Byrne, who later published them for the first time in Journal fur den Orchideenfreund in 2005. Today, the orchid called Dendrobium sutiknoi becomes an attractive primadonna in the Spatulata group.

That is only a piece of a success story explaining how deep the dependency that builds relations between hunters who take orchids from the wilderness and their bosses: orchid collectors and orchid lovers. Their skills in examining the exotic plants seem to consecrate their professions, without compliance to existing regulations. Money and trust becomes the foundation in this business.

In the region of Sukabumi, West Java, Emen, a hunter and also aggregator, proudly gave his name card, which showed his contact address and his rare title, si kala ider javanica. Maybe he wanted to say: “I am Emen, the hunter of Phalaenopsis javanica”–– the West Java endemic moon orchid that has been declared extinct in the wilderness but is not mentioned in the protected species list.

Sjahrizal Siregar also has mutual cooperation with orchid aggregators. “I have never ordered for a certain species to be taken from the forest. But it is the hunters who contact me. They said they needed a certain sum of money to send their children to school, to eat on the day, or to buy medicine for their sick wife. I gave them money without any commitment. A few days later dozens or hundreds of orchids arrive at my place in return to the money they borrowed. Could I be categorized as a fencer?” Sjahrizal said rhetorically while shrugging his shoulders.

As a matter of fact, I was out of breath. Orchid cultivators or collectors did not pay the aggregators the rupiah value of each wild orchid that they uprooted and sent.  They only paid the shipping fee and the labor of the aggregators, without considering the risk when they climbed high to reach an orchid in the forest. Not to mention that they did not enjoy any benefit if any of the orchid was identified as a new species.

I could only hope that quarantine officers could prevent the flow of distribution from the taking of the orchid from the nature, including cutting off the pattern of smuggling them abroad. But the hope faded because the officers do not have adequate knowledge so that they could not differentiate nature orchids from hybrids.

The government responded by strengthening the regulation. But the efforts again received protests from cultivators who trade orchids. They protested, “We have abundant Dendrobium crumenatum, why can’t we sell them?” Irawati quoted her colleagues as saying.

Actually, to cope with the inadequate knowledge, Irawati had offered a solution: making best of the botanical garden networking. Five botanical gardens, as plant researching institutes, have orchid experts who are ready to share their knowledge. “Several months ago, the Forest Protection and Nature Conservation Office wanted to check cultivated orchids that would be exported from East Java, I just contacted my friends in Purwodadi botanical garden,” she said, explaining the coordination scenario. Unfortunately, such an inter-institution cooperation seldom takes place.

Orchid lovers are not only interested in the beauty of the flower. The damaged habitat caused by copper mining prompted Dian Rossana Anggraini and her colleagues in Bangka Flora Society from Bangka Island to cultivate the pencil orchid or Papilionanthe hookeriana.  When the number of the cultivated orchid is beyond the expectation, they sell them cheaply: Rp 10,000 a piece. Even though they have been successful in cultivating various types of orchids from the nature, even those which are difficult to breed outside the habitat like the ladyslipper orchid, none of the orchid lovers or collectors has returned their cultivated orchids to the nature.

Several years ago, Ayub Pranata and his friends from the Indonesian Orchid Association made such an attempt, but they then stopped it because the forests in West Java suffered from serious degradation.

A question keeps lingering in my mind, whether the habitat will be torn out continuously so that one day we could admire the beauty of the Goddess Venus’ ladyslipper orchid and the other orchid groups only in gardens belonging to collectors and cultivators.

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