Pages

14 November 2007

The Siren song of the cloud forest

In 2002, strange photographs were being circulated via e-mail and doing the rounds on online orchid forums. As always, the photographs were tantalizingly unfocused and indistinct. What they seemed to depict was a New World slipper orchid of some kind, a Phragmipedium. This seemed like a new species, and a brightly coloured one, at that. The last time a really unusual new orchid was discovered was in the early '80s, when the fiery Phragmipedium besseae was spotted from a helicopter, growing on sheer cliffs on the eastern slopes of the Andes. Everyone likes a good mystery, and the online chat room is the premier rumour mill of the 21st century. This new thing intrigued everyone in the orchid world, but intrigue goes deeper than casual fascination for those truly obsessed with these horticultural harlots. No-one could have predicted the magnitude of the mania that was about to strike the orchid community, or how far-reaching the effects of this most severe outbreak of orchid fever would be.
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.

18 comments:

Church Lady said...

I love these pictures.
And your story makes something so ordinary feel extraordinary!

gm said...

Wat 'n ongelooflike storie. Fassinerend. En dis 'n reuse orgidee. Wow.

Nog 'n vraag vir jou (ek is vol daarvan, ek weet): verkies jy orgidee soos dit natuurlik voorkom, of hibriede? Ek dink dis eintlik nogal romanties om te kan se: hierdie is 'n 100% natuurlike orgidee, soos dit in die natuur was (way back when). Ek neem aan meeste orgidee wat mens by kwekerye etc koop is hibriede?

Triggermap said...

Its quite amazing that one man's ego almost wiped out an entire subspecies of a plant. But even if he had never taken the orchids out of Peru, but with word still circulating would of doomed the orchids anyway to being plucked from their natural habitats - such is life in poor countries...

Adam said...

Dit was die opwindendste blommestorie wat ek al ooit gelees het! Ek het amper my naels begin kou...!

Mis jy jou plante?

wreckless said...

THAT, was a cool story.
Amazing and intriging stuff.
I especially liked that you put an answer in there-I was starting to get very depressed about the way we ravage nature in the pursuit of our vainglorious and greedy motives.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

church lady: welcome to my Garden of Earthly Delights! I hope you enjoy it here; it's quite overgrown now, but it was planted with love.

gm: aanvanklik was dit maar die hybrids, want soos jy weet is dit maar wat die goed wat die maklikste bekombaar is - dis ook maklik om hulle te waardee: hulle is ooglopend pragtig. Maar soos wat die obsessie groei en jou smaak ontwikkel en jou kennis vermeerder, kom jy spoedig agter dat die mens nie op die Natuur kon verbeter nie.

triggermap: man it's nice to see you here again! Yeah, the whole scenario is a vicious circle. You really can't blame the locals - you'd do it too, if you were in their circumstances.

adam: Dis mos my kinders... ek mis hulle vreeslik. Ten minste word hulle goed versorg.

wreckless: Yeah, in this case there was a happy ending, of sorts. As long as the wild orchids are left alone. Please don't purchase plants by the side of the road while on holiday, folks!

Justgivemepeace said...

"the wild orchids will remain queens of the cloud forest"....

A slipper orchid....
suddenly, the princess of a
Hans Christian Anderson fairytale....

You write so beautifully...
As if Nature itself, speaks through your voice....

Inarticulate Fumblings said...

Seriously fascinating. I feel educated every time I come here (and if I'm totally honest, feel out of my league when it comes to leaving a comment but I'm going to anyway).

I LOVE your expertise on this topic, though know nothing about it. Know that I love your blog and pour through every post.

SleekPelt said...

Another remarkable piece, Teoh. This Kovach guy interests me. I mean, didn't he know he was going to get in trouble for this? Wouldn't an international orchid hunter be familiar with Cites restrictions on slipper orchids? Was he just drunk with excitement?

Also, your awesome descriptions of the orchid community and market are very surprising to me. What other flowers have this passionate and complex a following?

morbidneko said...

pdo you think the natives who found the flowers first feel a bit... ripped off?

^_^

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

justgivemepeace: aah, singleton's alter ego! I like your Andersen connection there. And... thank you.

inarticulate fumblings: my intention is not to make anyone feel out of their league; I simply wish to share my passion for biology and do so in a non-technical way so that everyone can understand what I'm getting at.

sleekpelt: I think he most definitely knew the regulations. He probably still thought he was going to get away with it, since it was 'for science'. And in a way he did. Have you seen what the guy looks like? Google his name - you'll be surprised... Other plants with a rabid following? Hmm, well, there's the cycad community as I've written about in the previous post; people into caudiciforms (succulents with swollen stems); cacti; aroids; carnivorous plants. The little old ladies interested in begonias and roses and such are pretty normal by comparison to these folk.

morbidneko: they most definitely were ripped off, but I doubt that they realize it. $5.00 is a lot of money for a rural Peruvian houshold. $5000.00 is unthinkable. They had no idea that the plants they were selling were that valuable, and foreigners exploited them because of it.

SleekPelt said...

I've seen what he looks like now, Teoh. Interesting.

jason evans said...

I blame the people paying the prices more than the locals who collect the specimens. I'm glad that cultivation will remove the pressure.

Thank you for sharing this story. Blog posts which teach are the best of all.

arcadia said...

beautiful, en riveting. waar kom die orgidee se propensity om obsessie aan te wakker vandaan?

Twanji Kalula said...

I feel like they're looking at me! I am such a narcissist...
Hope you are well my friend.

alang bidara said...

Greetings from an orchid lover in Malaysia.

Wow, Mr T.E.O.H., your story seems like a chapter out of one of the Grisham thriller masterpiece.

No doubt a hybrid orchid flower may last for weeks or even months, but none is more exciting an ordinary collected from the wilds of the Andes, Himalayas or the South Asian tropical jungles.

Exciting stuff, sir. Exciting indeed.

*dalyn said...

beautiful pictures THEO... not sure how to send you a message through blogger so i had to do it through comments... well anyways, im Inarticulate Fumblings friend dalyn... i make all his blog mastheads for him. id love to make you one too if you'd like. (i saw your comment on IF's blog) all i ask is for a link to my site on your blog? you can check out my stuff at www.bruiser.ca and i have some new stuff (blog related) up on www.flickr.com/photos/dalynspics
check them out and then get in touch with me if you're interested! jess cant hog my skillz all to himself! email me at dalynszilvassy @ gmail.com *dalyn

Wuttisak said...

Nice blog. I will keep reading. Please take the time to visit my blog about Orchid Care