|Turning a new leaf: Phan Chau Nhuan in his orchid garden. — VNS Photos Dinh Khanh
by Vu Dinh Khanh
A number of once-popular varieties of orchids are now back in vogue across Viet Nam, particularly in the southern region.
Of the thousands of tubs of orchids on display at the Da Lat Flower Festival late last year, the "hawaigame" was placed in a less prominent position.
The slender plant has smaller and less striking blooms than those of its bigger and more flamboyant relatives.
However, its owner, Nguyen Quoc Thanh, is proud of the plant's unique quality.
Dozens of years ago, such orchid breeds were popular among local orchid enthusiasts but were soon replaced by newer and more beautiful ones.
The old breeds are now making a comeback and regaining their popularity.
Thanh, who has run the Thang Long orchid shop at HCM City's Cu Chi suburban district for 10 years, has spent the last three years collecting and breeding the once-popular orchids.
His garden is now home to 12 breeds, including "antenna", "red dragon", "black spider", and "samurai".
Infatuated with the breeds, Thanh has travelled to various provinces to seek them out. A customer offered VND7 million (US$324) for one of his "dendrobium" breeds, but he refused to sell it.
Vu Thanh Tung, who lives at Cai Rang District of Can Tho City in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, gave Thanh the seedlings of the breed. Its identity has remained elusive until now.
Tung, who collects these breeds out of mere passion, recalled that once, he saw a white, stunning breed by chance in the orchid-packed garden of an old villa.
He asked the owner about the breed. In return, the owner gave him some of the special orchids.
|Flowery pastime:Nguyen Quoc Thanh checks his orchids.
Research shows that the plant is a "caesar white" which was hugely popular before 1975, the year Viet Nam was reunified following the fall of Sai Gon.
Thanh then began taking the plant to exhibits. It won two gold medals in Can Tho City and Ben Tre Province in 2011.
The breed has since enjoyed greater popularity and fetched high prices across the Delta.
Tung and Thanh favour these breeds partly because they flower more often and require less care compared with the newer and more popular breeds. The two men currently breed by grafting.
Tung explained that several Thai companies have tapped into the current comeback of once-popular orchid varieties in Viet Nam by mass producing them in Thailand and exporting them to Viet Nam.
He was quite surprised to observe that locally grown plants were more gorgeous than those of the same breeds that were imported from Thailand, though several of them originated from there.
One example is the pleasantly purplish "dazing", which originates from Thailand and was popular around 1945.
Several Thai companies have grown the breed on a large scale and exported them to Viet Nam, but their plants are not as popular as locally grown ones because of their colour and shape.
A tub of Thai "dazing" costs VND250,000 (US$12) while a tub of locally grown orchids may fetch VND2 million to 3 million ($95 to 140).
Tung guessed that the breed has been growing in Viet Nam for a long time and therefore has distinctive characteristics that differ from those grown in Thailand.
The appeal of these once-popular orchid breeds also lies in the fact that few seasoned collectors and traders know much about their origins or even their names.
Phan Chau Nhuan, owner of Thu Ngan orchid garden in Cu Chi District, used to own a tea and coffee farm.
In 1996, a group of Taiwanese traders brought a few samples of the once-popular breeds into Viet Nam.
Nhuan then made a daring move which local orchid buffs have since admired. He sold his herd of 20 pigs and some other household items for $800 in 1996 and used the money to buy a pot of "chialin shinshu" orchids consisting of five twigs and two flowers.
In 2005, he switched from producing tea and coffee to breeding and trading orchids. His garden now boasts of roughly 10,000 pots of orchids, mostly once-popular breeds. He now owns 17 rare and once-popular breeds.
Nhuan called a "caesar king" flowering plant "Duong Van Minh", after the last president of the former Sai Gon regime.
He explained that only Minh owned the breed then. Only after 1975 did it begin to regain its popularity. Nhuan then pointed to another breed, which he called Tam Ly.
He explained that the breed belonged exclusively to a Christian priest, who then left it to the care of a man named Tam Ly.
Unable to find scientific names for the once-trendy orchid breeds, many are named after the areas where they were first discovered and the first people who bred and looked after them such as King Hoc Mon, King Muoi Bich and King Cu Chi.
As a juror at an orchid competition in 2009, Nhuan was enchanted by the winning orchid which the jury failed to identify. Nhuan spent VND20 million ($950) for the plant, which had four leaves and a few flowers.
He then named the variety Obama, at a time when Barack Obama had just been elected president of the United States. Nhuan now has thousands of tubs of the Obama orchid.
One such pot now costs VND250,000 ($12), as his advanced technique of tissue transplant has cut production costs.
However, Nhuan knows that mass production undermines the breeds' value, so he makes sure that these techniques are not used on several rare breeds.
According to Pham Anh Dung, member of the Cu Chi Association of Pets and Ornamental Plants and Thanh's father-in-law, genetic engineering yields saplings pots that are inferior to those produced naturally.
Grafting is a wise yet time-consuming choice which allows the grafts to have the same quality as host plants.
To promote the once-trendy orchid breeds, Dung and Thanh have taken them to exhibits across the country, mostly at their own expense.
They hired a lorry to carry their orchids all the way from HCM City to Ha Noi and stayed there for 10 days on the 1,000th anniversary of capital-Ha Noi in 2010.
Though their orchids sold out, they still incurred a loss of VND28 million ($1,300). However, they were happy because they had successfully promoted the varieties in the capital. — VNS