Millions of plastic beakers are piled high in laboratories covering an area the size of two-and-a-half soccer fields in the town of Lippstadt in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia. Seven hundred women, armed with tweezers and scalpels, work in shifts at the world’s largest orchid laboratory.
Once a rare and prized blossom, today orchids have gone the way of the common houseplant as cloning has made mass-production possible.
“People think of gardeners with straw hats when it comes to growing flowers, but they find high-tech production in our sterile laboratories,” said Anja Hark-Borrmann, the managing director of Hark Orchids in Lippstadt.
The 33-year-old Ms. Hark-Borrmann leads the fourth generation of her family business with her husband – and leads the world when it comes to exotic-flower cloning. Fritz Hark, her grandfather, dedicated his career to pioneering the orchid cloning process.
Orchid cultivation is complicated and tedious. The “queen of flowers” cannot simply be multiplied from cuttings, as with geraniums, but has to be cultivated from stem cells in the growing nodes of the flowering shoots. The Hark family developed an artificial culture medium, which looks and smells like a sweet pudding, and contains sugar, agar-agar, fertilizer, vitamins from bananas and phytohormones.
Orchid gardeners bring about 6,000 varieties of mother plants to be cloned in Lippstadt. Hark in turn delivers over 50 million of the baby plants to nurseries each year. At this stage they are 18 months old but only 5 centimetres high.
The butterfly orchid (phalaenopsis) is the most popular flowering room plant in Europe, clocking up yearly retail sales of around €1 billion. According to the central horticultural association, orchids account for one third of the German plant market share, miles ahead of the poinsettia, cyclamen and pot rose.
“The once-exotic flower has become a discount product,” said Matthias Bremkens, the head of the German orchid producers association. “Big operations have pushed out the smaller ones from the market.”
One orchid seller in the U.S. cleverly markets his orchids under the tag “just add ice!”
Huge Dutch nurseries like Floricultura have dominated the European market for a while: they sell about 145 million pots a year. “Supermarkets and DIY markets in Germany offer them for bargain prices, anywhere between €5.99 to €9.99,” said Cor Middelkoop, an orchid expert from the cooperative company Flora Holland.
In wholesale, they cost on average about €3.80, and Ms. Hark gets about €0.80 for a young plant.
“Today, the market has much more intense competition than eight years ago,” stated Karl-Heinz Lapornik, the sales manager at Hark Orchids. It is not only the Dutch who are competitors. Suppliers from Asia are squeezing in too, leading to an almost saturated market in Germany.
Orchid cloner Hark exports 80 percent of its little plants – mainly to the Netherlands, but also to America. The company made the leap across the Atlantic one year ago, attracted by the opportunities of the oversees market. It opened a laboratory in Michigan and now has a market share of about 25 percent in the United States.
“Many Americans do not necessarily have a green thumb,” said Mr. Lapornik. One Hark Orchids seller in the U.S., wise to this fact, cleverly markets his orchids under the tag “just add ice!” Three ice cubes per week and an orchid will flourish.
Katrin Terpitz reports from Handelsblatt’s Düsseldorf bureau. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.