“The Scent of Scandal”
By Craig Pittman, University Press of Florida, 304 pages, $24.95.
By Gina Webb
“If you have a story that seems worth telling, ” Dashiell Hammett once said, “and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it, regardless of whether it has to do with sex, sailors, or mounted policemen.”
Or, to be more specific, a rare slipper orchid, its bloom as big as a man’s hand, its “petals as broad as a boulevard, their color a shade of pinkish purple [that] looked like a frozen explosion, a freeze-framed blast of raspberry fireworks painted on the richest velvet.”
Even before it had a name, “the most beautiful orchid in the world” was worth as much as $10,000 on the black market. Behind the scandal it caused at one of the world’s most reputable scientific institutions — the venerable Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota — is a story with as many twists and turns as Hammett’s “Maltese Falcon, ” and just about the same amount of greed, jealousy, backstabbing and subterfuge.
Florida environmental writer Craig Pittman, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) who covered the unfolding drama from the beginning, tells the tale just like Hammett would have, with a keen ear for dialogue, cliffhangers galore and the tenacity to hack through a virtual jungle of lies and buck-passing.
It all began in 2002, when a Virginia orchid collector named Michael Kovach walked into Selby’s Orchid Identification Center with a rare slipper orchid he’d bought at a roadside stand in a small crossroads in Peru. Wild orchids are protected by an international treaty, called CITES, that permits them to be exported only if grown in a nursery or a lab.
Kovach had slipped through the Lima airport and U.S. Customs in Miami unnoticed. Selby, with eager taxonomists on hand to identify and name the new species, rushed to catalog the once-in-a-lifetime find despite warnings that Kovach’s lack of permits might get the institute into trouble.
They named it after its finder: Phragmepedium kovachii.
A storm of controversy followed that rocked the organization’s foundations and could have ended its nearly 30 years’ standing as one of Florida’s most popular wedding sites and tourist attractions — a reputation it risked for a more dubious distinction: the first botanical garden in the U.S. to be charged with smuggling.
The cast of characters alone is staggering — enough to warrant a list in the front of the book, which conveniently offers job descriptions for everyone. And the action is even more byzantine. Pittman patiently untangles the hundreds of strands, a process that left him feeling, he says, “as if I were watching a performance of ‘Rashomon’ in a hall of mirrors.”
When Kovach brought the contraband orchid to Selby Gardens to be identified, the institute accepted the plant, tagged it and went through the official process of naming it (and getting their findings published) even after several experts — including well-known smugglers — warned them about the repercussions of overlooking the legal issues. Said a former employee, “Everyone involved knew it was illegal.”
Then information surfaced that suggested maybe Selby had been acquiring its orchids — the gardens offer one of the largest collections in the world — through illegal channels all along.
The fundamental problem, which Pittman explains at length, was the conflict orchid collectors faced from international smuggling laws that protected individual species while allowing “farmers and road builders [to] cut or burn thousands of acres of jungle and kill off untold numbers of rare orchids.”
Some orchid fanciers — including the Selby scientists and directors — argued that “smuggling was the only rational response to the rampant habitat destruction occurring throughout South America.”
But in their hothouse world, Selby’s respected directors and scientists never expected to find armed federal agents barging into their homes, making arrests and delivering subpoenas for a trial.
Much has been written about orchid hunters and their outlandish but glamorous lives, most of it chronicled in Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” (1998) and Eric Hansen’s “Orchid Fever” (2001).
Pittman wisely avoids this well-trodden territory. His orchidophiles spend most of their time in Sarasota, Tampa, Miami and Vermont. Nothing screams swashbuckling. But they still qualify as “the ones who put the ‘cult’ in horticulture.”
So, while “The Scent of Scandal” may read like a mystery, it doesn’t lead to any dead bodies. It’s a bloodless crime, and the queasy thrills it offers in every tightly plotted chapter come from watching a community of upstanding, scientific, reasonable plant lovers lie, cheat and sell each other down the river if it meant staying out of the slammer.
“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works, ” Hammett wrote, describing his famous private investigator Sam Spade. In like fashion, Pittman exposes the tangled roots that connect the beauty and the beasts in the orchid world. Even if you’ve never come closer to these exotic blooms than a prom corsage, “The Scent of Scandal” is irresistible.
By Gina Webb, AJC Arts and Culture blog