The orchid man of Miri

Orchids blooming at 16 degrees Celcius in the cold room and (left) White Borneo Orchids.

Orchids blooming at 16 degrees Celcius in the cold room and (left) White Borneo Orchids.

BIG LEAF NURSERY is a unique orchid-breeding setup in Miri as only one species — the Borneo Orchid or phalaenopsis — is grown there.

The owner Lim Shiow Hong has a soft spot for orchidaceae since the age of 12 when he started his romance with this much sought after exotic flowering plant.

Growing orchids and being close to nature has always been his way of relieving stress from his job in the sales business. For 10 years, he had been going the extra mile to achieve sales targets (which became progressively higher), and as a way to wind down after work, the passion for growing orchids proved the right panacea.

Lim received his secondary education at Marudi Government School. After that, he worked in the timber and marketing industry for 15 years, starting off as a saw doctor (in a sawmill) from 1991 to 1996. Subsequently, he joined the sales and marketing sector, first as a sales supervisor at Servay Supermarket, Miri, and then as marketing personnel with Sebor from 1995-2002.

He was sales supervisor with Harrisons Trading from 2002 to 2003, and before venturing out on his own to achieve his dream of running an orchid nursery, he was area sales executive with Harpers Trading.

His nursery started with a small shed at his home in 2000. He grew dendrobiums and some wild orchids at first but ventured further afield, slowly buying some orchid flasks from Kuala Lumpur Bird Park.

Lim was not successful at first because the survival rate of the orchids (phalaenopsis) he was growing was quite low due to his inexperience. The turning point came in 2002 when he met an orchid expert from Ulu Yam known as Mr Yap, the biggest phalaenopsis grower in the whole of Malaysia.

Lim recalled: “I learned a lot from him in the early stages and slowly gained more confidence.”

In 2003, Mr Yap formed Waltex Biotec Sdn Bhd which has become the most significant phalaenopsis orchid grower and specialist in the country. The company also teaches and promotes the growing of palalaenopsis.

Young ones going to bloom with Lim’s gentle and tender care.

Young ones going to bloom with Lim’s gentle and tender care.

Meeting the challenge

As there is an ever expanding interest in orchid growing, Lim got to thinking about his own life and aspirations. Since he has this great passion for orchids, why not turn it into an enterprise. After all, he has all the sales and marketing experience. So he took up the challenge and gave himself a trial period of five years.

Lim and his wife started with a relatively small capital — RM70,000 — their whole life savings.

“I’m very thankful to my wife. Without her, Big Leaf Nursery would never have been formed. I’m now at home taking care of the baby and she is working outside,” he beamed.

Lim readily acknowledges his wife is the person behind his career and totally agrees that behind every successful man is a great lady.

Today, he fills big orders for weddings, special occasions as well as hotel and other functions. His nursery carries the tag ‘palaenopsis’ on its van. Special weddings with large displays of orchids on the aisles around grand marquees in Miri have been striking and impressive attractions to even tourists who happen to pass by.

However, Lim continues to meet challenges such as lack of database on sales, and difficulties in forecasting sales. Orchids have a long growing period and it is also not easy to contain some diseases.

Lim’s orchids are not grown in greenhouses, as what many people would think, but in open spaces. Greenhouses in Taiwan, for example, require exorbitant investments but the upside is there is good quality control. And for this reason, Taiwan is regarded as a destination for horticulturalists and orchid lovers.

Taiwan also holds many floral festivals annually, attracting millions of tourists as well as a lot of investors.

A special shed using Taiwanese technology to minimise costs.

A special shed using Taiwanese technology to minimise costs.

Totally organic

Lim is proud to say his nursery is totally organic — no chemical pesticides and fungicides. He believes he is the only such orchid grower in Sarawak — something many people perhaps find hard to believe.

Palaenopsis — the generic name from Greek means Phalaen(a)-like — and is probably a reference to the genus Phalaena, the name given by Carl Linnaeus to a group of large moths. The flowers of some species supposedly resemble moths in flight. So they are sometimes called moth orchids.

They are native throughout southeast Asia — from the Himalayan mountains to the islands of Polillo, Palawan and Zamboanga del Norte on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines and northern Australia. Orchid Island of Taiwan is named after this genus.

Only scant recent information on their habitats and ecology is available since little field research has been done in the last decades.

Intensive cross-fertilisation has produced a great number of hybrids in all colours and variations. And these are what Lim is chasing after. One day he hopes to come up with a wonderful combination of colours of orchids. Right now, he has dark maroon, spotted, linear and myriads patterns of orchids at his nursery which has four sheds with 24/7 air conditioning.

He is happy to let visitors know phalaenopsis grows best with night temperatures in the range of 16-19 degrees Celcius. Day temperatures can be slightly higher.

One of the reasons phals (short for phalaenopsis) or Borneo Orchids sell so well is that they produce flowers lasting about three months, and sometimes even longer, at any time of the year. Once the flowers have faded, the flowering stalk must be cut back to just above the second node visible beneath the spent flowers. A new flowering side-shoot may sprout.

Lim is optimistic about his nursery and many friends are also learning from him.

“Based on today’s breeding efforts, the cultivars of the future will have a compact growth habit, variegated foliage, fragrance and longer flowering span. It’s good to think positive. We just have to work harder and not give up,” he enthused.

Since the 1970’s Borneo Orchids have been the favourites for wedding bouquets in Malaysia. Offices of many top politicians are also adorned with these orchids. Some wealthy businessmen will only display Borneo Orchids at their premises, and rental outlets have also been keeping Borneo Orchid growers busy over the past 30 years. Moreover, the popularity of Borneo Orchids is catching up in Europe, especially in the UK.

Reason for popularity

One of the reasons Borneo Orchids are so popular is that many nature-lovers give orchids as presents instead of some store-bought products, according to J Huang, a businesswoman working in London.

She is now decorating her friend’s condo in Miri with special Borneo Orchids timed to bloom during Chinese New Year.

“Hopefully, we’ll have flowers by then. There will never be enough Borneo Orchids for me,” she told thesundaypost at the Big Leaf Nursery.

Meanwhile, Lim has this advice for orchid fanciers: “Sometimes if a healthy and

large plant does not produce flowers within a reasonable time, reduce the temperature by 5 degrees Celcius for four weeks and a flower spike will usually develop.”

Now that he has become very familiar with the flowering stages of his orchids, he can control the process. For example, he moves his small orchid plants from one platform to another according to their size.

When they are big enough, he will move them into the air-cond sheds and start forecasting the flowering process. And he is quite accurate at this. For example, he is able to get hundreds of pots to flower just before Chinese New Year.

“This is the most thrilling part for any orchid grower – to see flowering at a specific time. Indeed, you have to show your orchids great care and love,” he said.

A visit to Lim’s nursery is a joy and one should not miss the opportunity for such a free and inspiring educational tour.

A healthy and sturdy organic bloom.

A healthy and sturdy organic bloom.