A leading orchids expert at London’s Kew Gardens is hoping its latest festival will help boost much-needed conservation efforts for India’s flora.
Bala Kompalli, botanical horticulturist at Kew Gardens, has been cultivating a diverse range of orchids for the annual Orchids Festival, which this year has transformed the Princess of Wales Conservatory into a vibrant Indian market.
The festival is taking place amid the ongoing degradation of much of India’s forests, as roads, settlements and agricultural developments encroach on the fragile ecosystems.
Rapid development has been particularly devastating in the Himalayan foothills, home to a number of ecosystems in which orchids flourish.
A recent study published in Biological Conservation named the Manas wildlife sanctuary in Assam – home to 15 species of orchids – as the most drastically affected natural heritage site in a list of 229.
“I feel there is always a threat to the status [of orchid species] because of the population size [of India] and the pressure of the economy growing so quickly,” says Kompalli. “There is pressure on the natural habitats of the orchids and many other forests in India.”
The answer, Kompalli believes, lies in educating people, both within and outside India, of the significance that these pieces of the natural world hold for Indian culture.
“In India we integrate culture with nature, which is so amazing and I’m very proud to say that,” she says. “We need to talk about nature and how important it is to our culture. Not to disturb too much, how sustainably they can make it happen – educate the local people and supply alternatives.”
Kompalli has also organised field studies in India through her contacts in the Wildlife Institute of India and the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute in Kerala, to study how orchids grow naturally, as well as talking to local people.
She will be hosting a talk in March on her experiences during these field studies.
Kew Gardens has also been involved with propagating endemic species of flora. The most notable is the Montserrat orchid, which was wiped out by volcanic eruptions in the late 1990s and cultivated by the organisation to ensure its survival.
“Conservation is everywhere at Kew. That is what has made me stay here for so long,” she says. “This is the right place for people who have an interest in plants and who also care about conservation.”
Kew Gardens’ 22nd annual Orchids Festival runs until March 5. Between 30 and 40 species of orchids are on display, along with life-sized animal figures, bicycle rickshaws and a 900- chrysanthemum display of the Indian flag. Floral displays are accompanied by an urban Indian soundscape and a pond display. The festival is part of a year of bilateral cultural exchanges between the UK and India, which will also include a number of film and art events.