It was a fortunate accident. When Oradee Sahavacharin enrolled as a graduate student in horticulture at the University of Hawaii in 1974, she planned to specialize in cloning the spiky anthurium, an ornamental tropical flower. But there wasn't enough room for Oradee. So she started studying orchids instead, returning to Thailand three years later with a PhD and a few Hawaiian plants.
That was the beginning of what now is an important livelihood for Thai farmers. At Chulalongkorn University, Oradee started a program in orchid-tissue culture. With her cloning technique, up to 1 million plants can be produced from the tissue of one original plant. Her work has helped Thailand become the world's top orchid supplier, with exports growing from $190,000 in 1979 to $32 million last year.
Perhaps her biggest contribution is pioneering an industry that has given poor farmers an alternative cash crop to opium poppies, which are used in heroin. Besides orchids, Oradee also has developed techniques for cheaply growing chrysanthemums, lilies, and carnations. It costs farmers just a few cents to buy tissue cultures to grow the flowers. A single bud can be cloned to produce up to 20,000 plants in a year. Families can earn as much as $250 per month selling them, says Oradee. "They can sell one stem, and that covers their costs for the year," she says.
Although she retired last year, Oradee, 61, still works at home and has built a busy consulting business. Her clients include the Thai agricultural giant Charoen Pokphand Group and such nations as India, Burma, and Bangladesh. Tropical Flora (Thailand) Co., which she and her brother founded nearly 30 years ago, is now one of the country's biggest producers, turning out 20 million orchids a year. She has also just started a training school next to Bangkok's Sunday market offering courses for orchid enthusiasts. "I cannot stop," says Oradee. "I have to do something all the time." So let thousands more orchids bloom in Bangkok.