Deep in the plunging valley, in the shadow of a carved-out sand mountain, in a place of rampant destitution, unexpected beauty blooms.
It thrives in a land of crushing poverty, in an almost magical place, on grounds crowned with towering pines known as the farm of Antoine “Toni” Assali, where workers tend to a staggering collection of colorful Cattleyas, queen of the orchids.
There are thousands of them, robust and resplendent in shades of pink and lavender, and the most ubiquitous white. Best known as the “Corsage” orchid, Assali’s beauties bloom in plain view of a stark symbol of looming ecological disaster, where workers strip construction sand from a bare mountaintop.
Assali’s nursery is a slice of Caribbean paradise. And a source of income.
“When I see my flowers in a window at a florist who doesn’t know me I am so proud,” says the Haitian grower. “They come from a country that produces almost nothing; a country with has such a sad reputation.”
For 26 years, Assali, has been tending to his Cattleya orchids in this Haitian suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince.
Once a week _ twice when business was booming _ he and his 20 odd workers, cut and meticulously package them in boxes before driving along dirt and rutted roads, honking through the traffic-clogged streets of the capital to the international airport. They are then loaded onto airplanes, and flown to Miami.
The orchids adorn $500 funeral sprays, maybe a wedding bouquet and in that rarest instance a corsage.
“There is always a little bit of light even in the darkest spots,” says Assali, a former textile importer who became an orchid collector before rising to a leading cut-flower wholesale grower.
As a wholesale business, Cattleyas are unusual anywhere, said Ron McHatton, director of education for the American Orchid Society. The flowers are short-lived, and it takes too long to grow.
But the flower, which can be up to 8 inches across, still has a loyal fan base who consider its spectacular color and light fragrance the true mark of an orchid.
McHatton first met Assali last year, when at the invitation of local Haitian businesswoman Johane Buteau, he was invited to attend an orchid show at the Hotel Karibe. An orchid lover, Buteau wanted to raise awareness and connect the country’s small, but budding group of orchid hobbyists.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” McHatton said about the invite to the show, which takes place again this year April 3-5 at Karibe. McHatton said he was just as shocked to learn “there was someone doing business for export,” and that Haiti once had an orchid society.
One reason Haiti has found success with orchids, Assali said, is due to its micro-climate. It is spring all year round at his nursery, where temperatures range between 50 and 70 degrees. The cool temperatures allow him to grow not just Cattleyas, but Lady Slippers and Cymbidiums, which he sells on the local market.
Copyright 2009 McClatchy Tribune Information Services