In May of 2002, Michael Kovach from Goldvein, Virginia, was travelling around the cloud forests of Peru on an orchid hunting expedition. On the afternoon of 26 May, he came to the truck stop of El Progresso. In the parking lot, some local farmers were selling orchids. This is a common sight in this part of the world, and the orchids are usually collected from the wild as people clear new patches of forest in order to plant their crops. After Kovach expressed interest in the wares peddled by a brother and sister, the girl wanted to show him something special, and hurried off. She promptly returned with three potted plants with obscenely large, royal purple blossoms. Kovach knew he'd never seen anything like these before. Other Amazonian slipper orchids were half the size and in drab shades of green. He bought them all, for $3.60 a piece. This was it, his chance for orchid fame. Little did he know that his small act of exploitation by the side of the road in rural Peru would set in motion a series of events that would end up with his name living on in infamy instead.
Kovach had to get the plant scientifically described if it were to carry his name. The premier US institution for orchid taxonomy, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, would be his best bet. Imagine the astonished expressions of the esteemed plant taxonomists at Selby on that day when Kovach walked in with this new slipper orchid. It signified the most important discovery the orchid world had seen in over a century. The race was on: word was received that orchid expert Eric Christenson was preparing a description of a fabulous new Phragmipedium that would change slipper orchid breeding forever. Dr. Eric Christenson worked from photographs sent by Peruvian orchid enthusiasts, and with the support of the Peruvian government. He would name the new species Phragmipedium peruvianum. In order for the name Phragmipedium kovachii to be accepted by the scientific community, the Selby description had to be submitted first: the taxonomists and botanical illustrators were determined to work overtime. Selby ended up beating Christenson to print by five days. Kovach's place in history was secure. At the same time, stories began to appear in orchid forums that specimens of the new orchid were already fetching prices as high as $10 000 on the black market...
Here's the curious thing: due to CITES restrictions which control the trade in endangered species, slipper orchids cannot legally cross borders, for whatever reason. Hybrids yes, nursery-raised plants certainly, but not jungle-collected specimens. Therefore, the Marie Selby Botanical Garden was guilty of orchid smuggling, its reputation forever tainted. Oops. And the name P. kovachii can't even be retracted so that the whole sorry mess will go away, as it was indeed published first. The rules need to apply to everyone. This has happened before: even if we all like the name Brontosaurus so much more, the name Apatosaurus was assigned first, so we'll have to live with it. Whenever you hear of a botanical institution describing a new species from another country, you have to wonder how they managed to do it; even if it were tantamount to smuggling, surely the rules don't apply when it's for science? As Dr. Christenson so eloquently put it, "Anyone with half a brain cell doesn't go near them. They're the pandas of the orchid world... When somebody shows up with an orchid like that, you either quietly tell them to go away or you call the cops."
There's also the part of the story concerning the whereabouts of that specific Selby orchid after it was described. Who got to take it home when they were done? Let's just say there were police raids on several greenhouses that year. Redundancies. Lawsuits. In-fighting. Mud-slinging. The withdrawal of research grants. Thrilling fodder for a Grisham novel, no doubt. Nobody could claim orchids were boring after that. Michael Kovach least of all: he just barely escaped doing time. Others weren't as lucky. "Lead us not into temptation..."
In Peru, the government started posting fliers at every airport warning people against trying to smuggle the slipper orchid out of the country. Unfortunately, the brand new Phragmipedium was already in deep trouble. The slippery hillsides where Kovach's original plants came from were bare. The orchid was lost, nowhere to be found. Local people desperate for some income had helped unscrupulous smugglers in completely stripping the site of its thousands of P. kovachii plants. A second site was subsequently discovered and also collected out. Illegally collected orchids were now selling for $1000 each in parts of Europe. The outlook seemed bleak. Months went by, and scientists started speculating that P. kovachii could already be extinct in the wild, even with hardcore CITES regulation and the fear of spending eternity in a Peruvian prison as deterrents. Finally, a small colony of the regal orchid was discovered on a virtually inaccessible cliff in a remote part of the sub-Andean basin. The unfriendly terrain would be its protection. Getting to the site required making what Harold Koopowitz, the editor of Orchid Digest, calls "the hike from hell".
The true salvation of any species at risk from overcollecting lies in taking pressure off its natural populations by introducing it into cultvation. In a sensible move, the Peruvian government granted Alfredo Manrique of Centro de Jardinería Manrique in Lima permission to collect five - and only five - plants for preservation through propagation. With expert help from some of the world's best specialists in orchid cultivation and tissue culture, this most beautiful of New World slippers will soon be available to everyone at an affordable price. Best of all, the wild orchids will remain queens of the cloud forest, safe for the moment. In the November 2007 issue of Orchids magazine, the American Orchid Society published vanity shots of the first generation of P. kovachii hybrids, including Phragmipedium Haley Decker, pictured here. Orchid breeding is never going to be the same again.
All photographs from Centro de Jardinería Manrique, unless otherwise indicated.