Orchids of Eden

Duckitt Nurseries was initially built on passion and four orchid species, but it is now the biggest cut flower and Cymbidium orchid farm in South Africa with a few hundred varieties. Keri Harvey reports.

Orchids of Eden
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Back in 1960, the late Frieda Duckitt went to an orchid show in Cape Town and bought her first orchids to add to her thriving collection of anthuriums and African violets. Little did she know that she had just started Duckitt Nurseries, now owned and run by two of her sons, Nicolas and Wilferd.

Duckitt Nurseries, which has been internationally known since 1979, houses 4ha of plants in greenhouses, which include a few hundred different varieties. While the exact number varies daily, there are consistently at least half a million orchid plants growing at Duckitt Nurseries, just outside Darling on the West Coast.

Wilferd studied botany at UCT and Nicolas joined operations in 1983 when orchid production grew too big for his parents to cope with. He learnt on the job and also worked in the Netherlands with some of the world’s top Cymbidium growers. Wilferd is in charge of the pot plant lines and growing the Cymbidiums, Cattleyas and other smaller lines. He also tests water and fertilisers. Nicolas takes care of Cymbidium cut flower production and assists with selection of Cymbidium plant material, logistics and despatch to the market.

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Nicolas shows potted orchids that are crated and ready for transport to markets around South Africa.

Different varieties
“The main genera we grow are Cymbidium for cut flowers and pot plants, and Cattleya for pot plants,” says Nicolas. “We also grow some of the other African species such as Ansellia, Angraecum and Aerangis as hanging plants. These are our main lines.” While tropical orchids flower throughout the year, the orchids grown at Duckitt Nurseries are seasonal and bloom mainly in autumn, winter and spring. A small number of plants flower in summer.

Nicolas explains that some orchids are more difficult to grow at Darling, especially the tropical ones such as Dendrobium and Vanda. “We can grow them, of course, but they require heating that is not commercially viable on a large scale. Tropical orchids can be grown very cheaply in the Far East, and we can’t really compete in this market.”

“We start off with tissue culture plant material,” says Nicolas. “In late spring to early summer, when plants are most active, we cut growing tissue from the parent plant and send it to a laboratory that multiplies it for us – as much as we need of each variety. When we get the plants back from the lab they are young plants of about 20cm high.”

Elwida McKidd picks the orchids by gently snapping the nylon elastic trellis thread as well as their stems.

The next step is to transplant them into community pots in a medium of sphagnum moss and styrofoam, where they grow for nine to 12 months. Then they are re-potted again into individual pots in a medium of rockwool granulate and housed in greenhouses. At the age of 18 months to 24 months the plants are moved to open-air shade houses – with stronger light and cooler night temperatures – to get them into a seasonal growing cycle so they will produce flowers.

“We move them to the open-air shade houses during October and November when it’s warmer, so the shock of being outside isn’t too great for them,” adds Nicolas. In the third year of growth, the orchids are potted into their final pots for sale, where they will grow for another full year before being sold as potted orchids. Orchids normally flower only in the fourth year of growth.

During the entire four years of growing, liquid fertiliser is added to the water in specific quantities. “We fertilise more in summer because it’s the growing season,” says Nicolas, “During the flowering time – also the colder time of year – the plant is less active so it needs less fertiliser and water.”

In summer, depending on the temperature, plants are watered two or even three times a day in short cycles. “We test the plants to see during which cycle we need to add fertiliser. We can fertilise two or three times in a row, but then we need to give a flush of plain water to the plants.” The stems of orchids being cultivated for cut flowers are tied to trellises with nylon elastic threads for straight stems. This is necessary for efficient packing into airfreight boxes, and straight stems are also generally highly prized by buyers around the world.

An aerial view of Duckitt Nurseries and 4ha of wall-to-wall greenhouse orchids.

It takes some orchid varieties between three-and-a-half and four years to bloom from tissue culture stage, although good flowers are generally only seen at between four and five years of age. Nicolas adds that the second flowering is normally better than the first. Orchid flowers are harvested by hand, by simply snapping the thin elastic nylon threads that hold up the flowering stem, and then snapping off – also by hand – the flowering stem at its base.

The main harvesting season for orchid flowers is generally from May to October and mainly women do the picking and packing. “They have the gentle touch,” says Nicolas, “but men assist with the more physical work.” Duckitt Nurseries employs between 60 and 70 people, depending on the season. “This is why orchids are expensive. They take a long time to grow and intensive manual labour is involved in their production,” explains Nicolas.

Pest prevention
He smiles and says: “With orchid growing you can’t be caught napping. Plants – roots, stems and leaves – all must be checked at least weekly, or you could easily lose your whole crop to pests. But rot is the main problem in winter. It can ruin a crop in a heartbeat, so we have to be very vigilant especially with plants growing outside. To prevent rot, we improve drainage as much as possible and remove rotten plants immediately so the rot doesn’t spread through the greenhouse.”

In winter, fungal control for botrytis is also done due to the wet, cold climate of Cape winters. “Flowers are carefully sprayed, and Bacilus subtilis or Bacillus pumilis are used as biological prevention for botrytis and work well if alternated with other fungicides,” says Nicolas.

Preparing, wiring and packaging potted orchids take time and care and is best done by women workers.

In summer, the main pest is red spider mite. The hot and dry climate of Darling, with an added six or seven degrees in the controlled environment of the greenhouse, provides optimal breeding conditions for this pest. “We control red spider mite mainly with predator mites, but if the flowers are already open we use a conventional spray programme to control it, because it can cause an immense amount of damage if left untreated.” Red spider mites suck the plant sap from the flowers and leaves, stunting the plant. It also gets a silver hue under the leaves and then can’t produce more flowers.

Orchids to the world
Duckitt Nurseries exports most of its cut flowers, while potted orchids are all for local markets (Woolworths, garden centres and various wholesalers). Export markets include the Netherlands, the east coast of the US, the UK, Italy, France, Spain and Germany. While Duckitt Nurseries is the largest orchid producer in South Africa, exporting Cymbidium and cut flowers, Nicolas adds that there is stiff competition from producers in New Zealand, Columbia and Peru.

But orchid growers have not escaped the global recession, says Nicolas. “We have been affected, so we have cut out lines we were not sure would be viable and have streamlined the business. For now we are working with the lines we know are successful, and when things improve we will re-evaluate new lines again.”

Challenges and rewards
The public demand determines what varieties are grown. “We have to test the market very carefully before we propagate new varieties in large numbers,” says Nicolas. “A variety must grow well, because if it grows easily we can sell it for less. Clarity of colour is important and flowers must have fresh, crisp colours, and the colour range must also be good in order to sell well.”

In South Africa the most popular colours are white and clear green with a dark lip – for both cut flowers and pot plants. The popular white orchid is called Jungfrau Dos Pueblos while the green orchid is the Forty Niner ‘Alice Anderson’ from the 1950s. It remains one of the top varieties because its colour is good, it’s strong stemmed, transports well and lasts long.

Cool colours such as white, pink and green are generally more popular in summer, while warm colours of yellow, orange and red do better in autumn and winter. In spring there’s a rainbow of orchids in bloom – every colour imaginable. Nicolas admits he does have a few personal favourites, but often it’s simply the first flower of a specific orchid variety. “As more and more different flowers open, it becomes more and more difficult to choose,” he says.

“Actually, what I like most about orchid farming is when I succeed at changing the growing disciplines, and can grow orchids faster and grow flowers on smaller plants. It’s exciting when I try something new and it completely exceeds my expectations.”

Public involvement
Duckitt Nurseries has public open days at the farm “because we still believe it’s a great way to see what people are buying and what the good commercial lines are. It’s testing the market in a ‘hands on’ way, with an immediate response. We also check our pricing for different lines by seeing what sells first.” Nicolas and Wilferd also attend orchid shows, mostly in the Netherlands and other European countries. In the future they will also possibly visit the US, Asia and the Far East.
Into the future

“If my kids want to be part of the business, there is a place for them, but they have to be very dedicated and be sure that this is exactly what they want to do,” says Nicolas. “You need to enjoy your work to apply yourself fully with dedication, especially during difficult economic times.”

Orchids are certainly one of the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing lines of agricultural production imaginable, says Nicolas. He still appreciates this daily. “I am privileged every day to walk through the orchid houses, and they are so beautiful that I sometimes have to bring myself back to earth afterwards. My hope is that my orchids can make a difference in people’s lives and soften some of life’s blows. I hope they bring pleasure and make the day brighter for everyone who owns one.”

Contact 022 492 2606 or email [email protected]