His passion for foliage plants has inspired horticulturist Mukundan Parthasarathy to create new hybrids that have made successful forays into foreign markets.

Piles of file folders and compact photo cases bearing labels that denote a slew of business processes. Stacks of horticulture magazines with stick-it notes on their covers for quick navigation to select pages. Mukundan Parthasarathy's office gives an inkling of the onerous responsibilities that go with his passion for breeding foliage plants and promoting them in the highly competitive American and European markets.

Since the late 1990s, Kayesgees — a stylised version of “KSG's Farm and Nursery” by which it is known outside India — has been feeding the U.S. market with patented foliage plants. Mukundan works with cordylines and anthuriums — a small number of them already patented in the United States — but he is better known in the U.S. as the Indian who works magic with aglaonemas.

In the last 25 years, Kayesgees has bred 17 aglaonema hybrids — nine of them patented and the rest on the threshold of receiving patents — that have flooded the market through four self-propagating licensees (Butlers Foliage from Miami, Michael's Nursery from North Miami, Green Star Foliage from Apopka and Kraft Gardens from Florida).

Launching in Europe

And now, two of Kayesgees' aglaonema hybrids — Cutlass and Gemini — are being introduced in the European market. Once the dust of hectic activity caused by this ambitious foray has settled down, Kayesgees will focus on pushing another three into Europe.

When Kayesgees' first patented aglaonema hybrid ‘Jewel of India' hit the U.S. market in the late 1990s, the company was hewing out a new path for Indians.

The move into Europe is equally trail-blazing. Until recently, impregnable barriers kept Indian plant breeders out of this continent. As India is not a signatory to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), Indians can't apply for patent protection — known as Plant Breeder Rights (PBR) — in Europe.

“Representations made to CIOPORA — an international community of breeders of asexually reproduced fruit trees and ornamental varieties of plants — have helped break down this wall of resistance. In 2009, thanks to CIOPORA's intervention, a relaxation was made whereby non-UPOV nationals could apply for a PBR in the European Union through a procedural representative,” explains Mukundan. “My patent attorney — Royalty Administration International (RAI) from Holland — serves as my procedural representative. As a result, I have been able to license a group called FOREMOSTCO and enter the European market with my aglaonema hybrids.”

According to the arrangement, the aglaonema hybrids, cutlass and Gemini, will be raised on a farm in Costa Rica and sold in Europe through brokers. Given the cost of transportation, these hybrids will leave Costa Rica as small plants in net pots that are placed in reefer containers.

“More than anything else, this development is something the whole of India can be proud of. I have always promoted my hybrids in the United States — and now in Europe — as STARSOFINDIA.”

Foothold in America

If you thought 62-year-old Mukundan carved a niche for himself early and reached this stage without frustrating setbacks, think again. His interest in foliage plants bloomed in 1976, and he spent over 20 years in the wilderness before getting a firm foothold in the American market.

Recalls Mukundan, “As a cricketer, I was on a tour of the United States in 1976. During the trip, I took time out to explore the American plant industry — centred in Florida — and met one of its icons Dr. Monroe Birdsey. Monroe put me on to a renowned foliage breeder, who was at that time working on aglaonemas.”

Learning that Mukundan hailed from a family of highly educated horticulturists, including the inimitable K.S. Gopalswamy Iyengar, and noticing his deep interest in plants, this foliage breeder encouraged him to take up work on foliage plants, especially aglaonemas.

With his formal education in horticulture and his grandfather's legacy — which includes a vast body of published writings on the subject — as guiding lights, Mukundan plunged into experimenting with these plants. His focus on evolving aglaonema hybrids that would resist intense cold drove him to various places, including the India-Nepal border. He was also selecting and cross-breeding varieties to meet the requirement of buyers in the West such as high leaf count. His work got noticed.

One after the other, two big U.S. horticulture companies, driven by a desire to diversify into foliage plants, roped Mukundan in for projects. After raising his hopes for a breakthrough, they discontinued their projects suddenly. “Finally, we realised we should get to the roots and make the growers interested in our hybrids,” recalls Mukundan. A surge in demand for potted plants in the 1990s also helped him. When the breakthrough finally came in the latter period of the decade, Mukundan could honestly say he deserved it.

The patience and determination with which he worked his way into the American market have not waned. Mukundan is as busy as ever, shuttling between his two horticulture farms — one in Thiruporur and the other, on the Mysore Road — and carrying out new plant trials.

“Breeding foliage plants feeds off my regular business,” says Mukundan. This includes running a nursery, taking up landscaping and landscaping maintenance projects and installing gardens in factories. Besides being a brain behind the green building initiative that earned Turbo Energy a platinum rating, he has designed and created five cricket grounds in Tamil Nadu that are being supported by corporates.

While overcoming such challenges gives him immense satisfaction, he's yet to find something that can rival the joy that comes from laboriously working on a vast set of plants for years and creating something totally new and beautiful out of them.

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