Book Review: The Scent of Scandal - Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid. By Craig Pittman (University Press of Florida 2012)

The clever title of this book is designed to catch the reader’s eye but it is not to be taken literally. Most Lady Slippers don’t have a ‘scent’ and people generally consider these flowers to be interesting or unusual rather than drop dead gorgeous. But the scandal that plays out within this 242 page hardback is as addictive a read as any on a Best Seller list.

This true story revolves around a small commercial grower in Northern Virginia named Michael Kovach, who upon returning from a trip to Peru in 2002, brought in a previously undiscovered orchid species and proceeded to have it named after himself by taxonomists at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota FL. There was some question as to whether Kovach had followed the proper import rules for the U.S. as well as the proper export rules for Peru.

The Peruvian government further sought to have the plant named after their country rather than a relatively unknown American nurseryman. To complicate matters, both Selby Gardens and the American Orchid Society were trying to be the first group to formally ‘announce’ the new orchid to the world – a feat that garnishes considerable prestige in the industry.

The stakes were unusually high in this orchid caper since the flower of this Lady Slipper was larger than a man’s hand with rich magenta coloring. There was nothing like it in the market place and the commercial value was potentially in the millions of dollars. The cast of characters in this real life drama included the who’s who of the orchid world – from prominent jungle explorers and botanical illustrators to professional orchid judges and magazine editors.

I first met Michael Kovach in the 1990’s while on the ‘orchid show circuit’ – traveling to various cities in Virginia – where commercial growers would display their best plants for ribbons and sell modestly priced plants from booths. His orchids were often unusual but he certainly didn’t give the impression of being a big time orchid smuggler!

The author of this book, Craig Pittman, describes in fascinating detail, the events that led to Michael Kovach’s arrest on two felony charges and subsequent trial. At the heart of the matter was an international agreement between governments called CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which was created in 1973 as an attempt to curtail the exploitation of rare animals such as tigers and elephants. Plants were later added. Currently, the treaty covers approximately 5,000 animals and 30,000 plants.

As the book reveals, orchid smuggling is a widespread problem. It is common for legal importers and exporters to have to wait many months to get approved shipping permits. For example, we had a CITES application for a client in South America take two years! This time delay tempts some growers to smuggle their plants and the author explains the many techniques that are used. The market for rare orchids is hot, with some plants commanding prices up to $10,000. Such was the case of this Lady Slipper.

The author interviewed nearly all of the players in this botanical thriller since he was a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and assigned to the case. The Scent of Scandal is one of the most entertaining orchid books to come along in years.

Saturday, September 1, 2012 - 17:00