BENGALURU: It’s for a reason that this building in Rajajinagar, Bengaluru, is called ‘Orchid House’. It is owned by a retired forest officer who has been nurturing and conserving the unique plants for the last three decades. And true to its name, the house is speckled with orchids of various sizes and shapes, with some even adorning the two coconut trees in the front yard.
The small natural forest amid the city’s concrete jungle is the result of the love-filled labour of K S Shashidhar, former Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Nagaland, who has gathered orchids not just from across the country but also from various parts of the world.
Shashidhar now educates people about the importance of orchids, and calls for natural conservation and propagation so that their collection from the wild can be curbed. He is a founder-member of the Orchid Society of Karnataka, started in 2005-06 to create awareness about orchid conservation and cultivation.
“Even though 28,484 species are listed from across the world, many are still being discovered, while several may still be unknown to the world, and many are going extinct. Considering this, I have taken up the task to conserve and propagate them,” says Shashidhar, talking about the plant that is widely considered one of the nature’s marvels.
Shashidhar has a collection of over 2,000 orchids, belonging to about 200 species, which he collected during his career as a forest officer. “My interest in orchids developed when I joined the forest department in Nagaland in 1983. I was fascinated by the orchids found in the forests there,” he recalls.
A graduate in Agriculture Science, Shashidhar was, of course, aware of orchids, but his fascination for the plant started at Dimapur, when he was presented with a flower by the then Range Forest Officer there. He soon started collecting rare species of orchids, and travelled across the country, and even to Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and other biodiversity-rich places in search of them. He also has a collection of some insectivorous as well as exotic plants.
“Nagaland is rich in orchids, but at least over a dozen of the 170 identified species are endangered,” he says. “Among them, Blue Vanda and Red Vanda are critically endangered, but they have been sighted here. An orchid known as Lady’s Slipper, which is also critically endangered, has been reported from here, but has not been seen so far.”
Shashidhar started growing orchids in Bengaluru when he was posted here during 1988-92, and continued until he went back to Nagaland in 1992. “In mid-2000s, I was again on deputation to Bengaluru. During this period, I travelled a lot in Southern India and studied the status of various species. When I went back to Nagaland in 2007, I left my collection of orchids with my cousin here. I had a good collection of orchids at Dimapur during 2007-2012,” he explains.
Shashidhar’s collection includes terrestrial as well as epiphytic orchids, which are grown in a controlled condition at his house. When questioned about whether they can be grown in a city like Bengaluru, which is getting warmer each year, he says, “You have to create humidity and reduce the temperature in the greenhouse through misting, aeration and shade.”
There are many orchids which he himself thought would not survive in Bengaluru conditions. “However, most of them not only survived but are blooming regularly,” he says. These conditions also help the first floor of his house remain as cool as the ground floor. The building has orchids growing not just on the terrace — the orchidarium is spread across 450 sqft — but also inside.
He is also in the process of pollinating and hybridising some of them, and points out that orchid hybrids have a huge commercial potential. He spends nearly three hours a day with orchids. “Culturing is not a day-long process. It has to be done in laboratory conditions,” explains Shashidhar, who uses facilities at a tissue culture laboratory located near Bengaluru. “Seed and tissue culture is a time-consuming process, requiring a gestation period of 3-4 years to come to blooming size. In case of Vandas, it is 6-7 years.”
His interest in orchids has slowly expanded to photographing them, and he frequents far-flung areas along with other enthusiasts and experts such as RFO Kalandhar and T S P Kumar, a retired forest officer. “We regularly visit places like Hassan, Bisle Ghat, Chikkamagaluru, Mudigere, Thadiyandamol, Somwarpet, and the entire belt of Brahmagiri and Pushpagiri, in search of orchids just for photography,” he says. “Once we went to look for a particular orchid, Dendrobium jerdonianum, in Thadiyandamol. We saw it blooming in the forest. But on our return, we found the same orchid in full bloom on a casuarina tree at the forest check gate!”
Shashidhar grows the orchids in shade, and the plants are cooled using two solar-powered fans during summer to maintain the temperature between 25°and 32°C. The foggers, fitted with a timer, turn on once every hour, and spray for two minutes. But one needs to be careful while watering them. “Overwatering is dangerous for orchids; it’s ok if they get less water. If you have doubt about watering, you need not water that particular day,” says Shashidhar.
There are 186 genera and 1,331 species of orchids in the country. While a majority of them are epiphytes, several are also terrestrial. The Western Ghats have plenty of ground orchids. Studies show that the ecosystem is vibrant wherever orchids thrive. India has eight growing habitats — the Himalayas, North Eastern region, Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats, Odisha, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. Though the country is considered an important orchid-growing region, not much is done to identify and conserve the habitats of rare species.