Phrag. Kovachii: Christenson Speaks

Big orchid society meeting today – the guest speaker was Eric Christenson, the taxonomist at the centre of the Phrag. Kovachii drama. For some reason I imagined he would be a small, studious-looking man in khaki shorts, knobby knees, a giant safari hat and round spectacles, but as it turns out he was more of a cross between Paul Bunyan and a motorcycle gang member. An extremely large man, he was as wide as he was tall, with a full beard, bad haircut, and easy way of speaking in front of a large audience. He had a sort of charm, and certainly, his long and academic presentation on oncidiums was far more interesting than it deserved to be. Especially considering that it was supposed to be talk on phragmipediums.

He did get around to the Phrag. Kovachii (excuse me…. Phrag. Peruvianum) saga at the end of his speech. It was a very perfunctory description of events leading up to Mr. Kovach’s indictment (maximum $300G fine and 6 years in prison) and Selby’s plea bargain down to a fine of $5,000 and a promise to apply themselves toward the reversal of the name “Phrag. Kovachii” in favour of “Phrag. Peruvianum”. It was clear from his expressions of pity that Mr. Kovach’s was just a bit player in a clash between Christenson and Selby. While he seemed dismissive of Kovach’s arrogance in calling attention to himself by demanding that the plant be named ‘Kovachii’, Mr. Christenson reserved his special contempt for Selby Botanical Gardens — a former employer — and appeared gleeful at his own contribution to Selby’s humiliation, who, he claimed, deserved everything they got. Interestingly, Mr. Christenson talked about the “Son of Sam” law in the United States, whereby no one can profit from a criminal act, and offered up his fervent desire that no book be published on the incident using the name “Phrag. Kovachii” as a result of these legal proceedings. While I’m sure Mr. Christenson felt himself to be on the right side of justice (“the Peruvian government will be pleased”, he claimed), I’m sure I detected more than a little bruised ego underlying his sentiments.

I was puzzled by Mr. Christenson’s openess about the future of Phrag. Kovachii in general distribution. A few months back, the mere suggestion that the plant would be available for sale legally within a couple of years had him so concerned that he passed along the intelligence to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their action. Today he was quite frank in describing the sad irony that Mr. Kovach would be doing prison time for a plant that would be widely available for cultivation in a couple of years. Odd. I’m sure the Florida grower, George Norris, who originally mentioned this possibility in a client newsletter that he forwarded to Mr. Christenson, would be glad to know that though his business was raided by federal agents as a result, it’s all common knowledge now.

Considering all the unsympathetic and self-interested characters in this drama, there is one player that has my attention and admiration: The Peruvian government. It seems that they are taking an active role in demanding full control over the future distribution of the species, and have demanded that every single specimen that has been removed from the country be returned. While this contributes nothing to the preservation of the species in-situ, I can’t help but admire a country that stands up for itself against representatives of bigger and more powerful countries who are accustomed to waltzing in and laying claim to whatever they find of value. A nice show of courage and national pride, especially in this day and age.