LABOULE – 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.
Lorraine Mangones, who is working on transforming the property of famed dancer Katherine Dunham in the middle of the Port-au-Prince slum into a botanical garden, said Assali is an inspiration.
“It’s a sign of hope in a country that doesn’t do much for protection of its environment and doesn’t seem to believe much in economically viable solutions to its environmental problems,” said Mangones, who discovered the nursery a year ago. “He’s extremely knowledgeable and extremely courageous to have created this.”
Assali says he first became attracted to orchids while visiting a friend’s house in Haiti as a teenager.
In 1981, as Haiti’s once flourishing textiles business began its decline, Assali, who was importing fabrics from Europe, was presented with the opportunity to buy a New Jersey-based orchid company that was going out of business. He later got an Inter-American Development Bank loan from the Haitian government to purchase the four-acre forest where his nursery now sits. Assali terraced the land using one meter high walls made of Haitian stones, built a packing room, dug a reservoir of 50,000 gallons of water and set up prefabricated greenhouses. The plants arrived via boat after two weeks at sea in 68-degree refrigerated 40-foot containers. “As we were raising the greenhouses from North Carolina, we were receiving the shipments of plants simultaneously,” he said.
Three months after he started, he got a phone call from a large wholesaler in Florida wanting to be a customer. Three months after that, a couple who had owned a flower business in Miami strolled into the nursery while visiting the nearby Barbancourt rum factory. They offered to distribute the cut flowers for him.
The relationship lasted for 18 years before the couple retired a few years ago and sold the business to another flower distributor, V and T Orchids in Miami.
“I never had to worry about who I had to ship my flowers to,” he said. “I only had to worry about growing and make them produce flowers.”
Verapong Halelamien, owner of V and T Orchids, says the orders from Assali have been steady even though the demand for cut Cattleyas has decreased from about 1,500 blooms a week in the early years to between 300 and 500 today.
The only other grower of cut Cattleyas, he said, is in Chicago.
When he first learned the flowers were coming from Haiti, he admits to being surprised: “Even USDA and U.S. Customs were like ’wow, we got a shipment from Haiti,’ ” Halelamien said.
But the orchid business hasn’t been easy, especially in a country in constant turmoil. It’s a reality that Assali always bears in mind, refusing to discuss revenue numbers, always cognizant of the fragile nature of his business in a brittle country. But the gratification is clear.
“There is nothing you can miss from being in heaven here,” he says. “It’s incredible that the most luxurious flower in the world is decorating the richest country, coming from the poorest country.”
This article was reprinted with permission from the Miami Herald.