The waterlily business is blooming

Waterlilies are seeing a boom in recent years. Now, fuelled by the downtime triggered by COVID-19, there is a new breed of hobbyists growing and selling these flowers

It is a trend, says Thane-based, aquatic gardener Somnath Pradeep Pal, discussing the increasing worldwide fascination for waterlilies.

Somnath was featured as the Hybridiser of The Month in the July issue of the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society (IWGS) Journal. With over 20 years of experience, he is now in the news for his deep purple lily called Rishi, which has a petal count of 50 and another 70-petal flower called Painted Dream.

While hobbyists are aware of the possibilities in growing and propagating waterlilies, their success is roping in others, he says. The other factor, according to him, is “the idea that a garden is incomplete without aquatic plants is drawing home gardeners to have a water corner”. And the fact that the flowers pose a scope for additional income for small-scale growers.

“Aquatic plants are a promising vertical segment of gardening. Their promising business scope attracts numerous small growers and high-end horticultural investors as well,” says Kochi-based JM Jacob who founded Miniature Gardening Expertise Society of India three years ago and is the administrator for several social media communities on gardening.

The slowdown triggered by COVID-19 does not seem to have impacted the growing interest in aquatic gardening. In fact it has spiked it, says Varun Kumar, an engineering student who has joined his family’s waterlily venture at Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu. He, along with his father Muthu Kumar, is the administrator of Facebook group Waterlilies and Lotus India. Varun says that there are as many as 10 groups on social media dedicated to water gardening with some groups having a membership of nearly 10,000.

“We were a small community but the last 18 months have seen a tremendous growth in membership,” says Jacob. His community called Aquatic Gardens on Facebook has seen 10,000 entries in the last year. He attributes the increase in numbers to awareness created through workshops, seminars and educational discussions across cities. Jacob compares this boom to people’s interest in orchids 15 years ago.

Bangalore-based grower and seller Indira Shankar says that the Internet has facilitated the commercial aspect of the hobby. A licensed importer, she has been in the field for the past 30 years. “Earlier, we grew native varieties; but now, with awareness, there are almost 2,000 registered hybrids to choose from,” she says.

The last five to 10 years, according to Maryland-based Kelly Billing, a water garden consultant and a member of the IWGS committee, have seen an international awakening. When she entered the field in 1986, very few companies were into hybridisation. The hybridised varieties, she points out, allow waterlilies and lotuses to be grown in small containers and bowls.

She explains, “New plants are on the rise. Somnath is creating vibrant new cultivars.” Hybridisers are working on even smaller plants for small apartments says Kelly who finds growing these “is part of one’s soul.”

Southern States in India that have good weather conditions and plenty of natural water bodies lead in waterlily cultivation but Maharashtra, Odisha and Gujarat also have many growers.

“Out of 100 who join the Aquatic Gardens group, 30 are from Kerala. Almost 70% of the plants are bought by growers from there,” says Jacob. Aquatic Gardens held the first all India Aquatic Gardening Expertise Meet and conference at Alappuzha in 2019 in Kerala.

“Every buyer is a seller of the future,” says Prasanta Kumar Das, a grower, hybridiser and aquatic venture knowledge consultant from Odisha and administrator of Aquatic Gardens. “Educating the beginners is essential for sustaining the hobby,” says Prasanta

Neethu Suneesh from Muvattupuzha bought her first waterlily bulb for ₹100. When the native variety blossomed, she delved into the subject and learned that hybrid varieties can be grown in small tubs on balconies and terraces. She bought her first hybrid bulb for ₹1,000 and this provided her with tubers in the next one month, which she could multiply. “I now have 65 hybrids, all growing on my terrace,” says Neethu.

Jacob explains the commercial viability of waterlily farming. “The waterlily’s propagation and rearing phase is very short compared to other ornamental plants like orchids, adenium or succulents. A grower might get up to 20 to 25 tubers from a mother plant to retail for anywhere between ₹1,000 to 5,000. A profit of a lakh is possible in a few months.” But he admits this may result in an imbalance between buyers and sellers and that a market-driven monopoly by breeders and traders may lead to popularity of only certain varieties.

Summing up the trend Kelly says, “There has been an uptick in interest while people have been home. Perhaps it slowed things down enough for people to reconnect with Nature.”

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