the age of the anthurium

In the middle of the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine in East Trinidad, there is a team of researchers toiling under the hazy sunlight filtering through a galvanised greenhouse, built specially for the growth of the anthurium plant. The team quietly tends to the potted plants that exhibit various stages of disease. It seems an odd pairing, these beautifully austere fronds and the bacteria that harm them. But, this is the life of the research team who has genetically modified the anthurium plant and its bloom to almost disease free status. The “almost” part is where things get interesting.

As part of the faculty of science and technology, Dr Winston Elibox and his research assistants have been successful in ridding the anthurium plant of two bacteria that affect the plant specifically. The last disease, or nematode in this case, is being studied in order to eradicate the microscopic pests that attack the root of the plant. The reason for this in-depth research stems from a larger initiative—the re-birth of the anthurium industry.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the anthurium plant flourished as an export crop for Trinidad and Tobago because of both popularity and circumstance. According to UWI’s department of life sciences, the anthurium plant is native to South, Central America and the Caribbean. In the 1980s, Hawaii and Jamaica suffered from the bacterial blight disease. That meant that the supply fell on the anthurium industry in Trinidad and Tobago. Subsequently, the twin islands became the largest supplier to the USA through the late 1990s. But it wasn’t long before the same bacterial blight also struck the T&T supplies, thus leaving the anthurium export industry dry.

But there is good news of late, as Dr Elibox, lecturer in genetics at UWI, explained. “At present the demand for anthuriums in the global and local markets is second only to orchids among tropical flowers. Furthermore, the anthurium cut flower is an excellent export ornamental crop because of its long vase life, which is much longer than that of most other cut flowers.”

This means that the possibilities for economic and agro-tourism growth stemming from anthurium farming are indeed highly achievable. Dr Elibox continued, “Anthuriums have been targeted as an important export ornamental crop in the Caribbean region’s diversification efforts. It is considered to be among the few promising options available in reviving the ailing plantation agricultural sector in the Caribbean.”

Adding to the value of the anthurium industry is that displaced farmers who once relied on sugar cane and/or bananas could very well take up floriculture as a viable alternative. Dr Elibox, a Saint Lucian by nationality, explained patiently, “Modern anthurium production is intensive and is carried out in shade-houses with high levels of management such as high-density planting on raised beds with regular pruning, field sanitation, irrigation, fertigation, pesticide application and routine replanting. Moreover, the tourism industry has created enormous local and regional markets for anthuriums, which are largely untapped.”

Another advantage is the geographical proximity of Trinidad and Tobago, and the rest of the Caribbean, to North America, the main export market. The tourism industry has also created flower shows and other events celebrate local flora. However, because of lack of marketing, this area is still largely undiscovered. In the meantime, researchers at UWI are fastidiously working on improving anthurium production in the hope of boosting sustainable development, as well as engendering more collaborative research. Despite the labour-intensive work, anthurium cultivation is a viable way to make an impact on the current economy. Since anthurium plants are carried out in shade-houses with various levels of management, it bodes well for farmers who are in need of a crop to plant.

Each acre of plants needs around five to six people to work, therefore, creating jobs for those who are unemployed or looking to diversify their own farms. Theoretically, if properly undertaken, anthurium farming and exportation of cut flowers could yield a profit margin of 20 to 30 per cent. Considering that the anthurium plant has up to 1500 species with variances in texture and colour, there are myriad ways in which the plant, and flower can be used as an export. The anthurium could rival the orchid. Anthuriums are easier to cultivate than bananas and sugarcane; farmers can get a crop each day, and cut flowers fetch high prices in the markets (both local and international).

Aesthetically, anthuriums have been sought worldwide for their longevity and unique beauty. The flower is made up of an inflorescence (spadix) subtended by a modified leaf (spathe) borne on a long stalk (peduncle). The cut flowers come in a range of hues, including white, rose, salmon, red, light red, dark red, brown, green, lavender, cream, and some are multi-coloured. The cut flower also varies in texture. Some are firmer and smoother, and others are softer and a bit on the floppy side. For home gardeners, the anthurium is not difficult to cultivate once you know the basics. Anthuriums will grow best in bright, filtered light. Watering properly requires a deft hand, as overwatering can damage the roots and lead to root rot.

Dr Elibox said that the Caribbean anthurium industry still has needs to be met. Among them is the development of a varied line of coloured flowers that are not only disease resistant, but the plants should be able to produce large quantities to keep the industry competitive and profitable. The plants should be adaptable to tropical climates and “the enactment of new legislation for plant variety protection has provided the right signal for private investments in breeding and bio-engineering.”

Most important, the research team needs the right support. With insufficient or irregular funding and inadequate research facilities, much of the work is delayed or hampered. In order to design an optimised breeding programme or any further genetic modification to the plant, the underlying basis for the plant diseases must be understood. The ongoing research by the UWI team has led to several new highly productive anthurium varieties. Dr Elibox said that new flower colours were noted as well.

Imagine what the scientists could achieve if they were able to research more freely. Business aside, the anthurium is an enigma of sorts. Its austere beauty and colour palette draw fervent admirers. It isn’t an overly complicated plant, and neither are the flowers to die for. But there is something compelling about the anthurium. Whether it conjures up a sense of nostalgia for us here in the Caribbean or it speaks to a more abstract type of beauty, the anthurium plant is commanding attention—from the science labs and greenhouses to your own flourishing home garden.