Phrag. Kovachii Mop-Up News

Finally, the last of the mopping up of the Phragmipedium Kovachii debacle. Last January I reported that Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and its top horticulturalist, Wesley Higgins (head of the orchid identification center) had to take their licks for their role in smuggling a specimen of this new discovery into the U.S. to be identified. The government of Peru and former Selby employee Eric Christenson, were already in the process of identifying what’s been described as the greatest orchid discovery of the last 100 years. But Selby beat them to it, thereby pissing off a lot of people.

Michael Kovachs actually got off fairly lightly, with two year’s probation and a $1,000 fine.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Merryday, of Tampa, told Kovach, of Goldvein, Va., he narrowly escaped doing prison time.

"I’m resolving some doubts in your favor owing to your status as a
first offender," Merryday said. "But some of your explanations here are
very nearly, ‘The dog ate my homework.’"

Sadly, George Norris — who got caught in the crossfire — did get prison time. Rabid U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials, on the hunt for illegal importers of Phrag. Kovachii, caught George in a scheme to fudge paperwork on other, artificially propagated, orchids. They figured he was trading in Phrag. Kovachii because his supplier was one of three growers in Peru with a legal permit to cultivate them. Nope. But he was an easy fall guy — elderly, bellicose, and unable to afford a good lawyer, apparently.

As for the fabulous orchid, it was stripped from the wild by poachers as soon as word got out that it existed.

Eric Hansen, who wrote Orchid Fever, "An extraordinary, well-told tale of botany, obsession, and plant politics" (U.S.A. Today), may want to start thinking about that sequel.

Continue reading “Phrag. Kovachii Mop-Up News”

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.

Garden fined in orchid scandal

Phrag_2It looks like Selby Botanical Gardens has escaped a possible $100,000 fine in the Phrag. Kovachii drama. They’ve been charged a penalty of
$5,000 and will participate in renaming the plant “Phrag. Peruvianum”, which was the name originally proposed by ex-employee and rival Eric
Christenson before he got scooped.

“We didn’t think we were doing anything wrong, but it turned out we did, and we’re sorry we did,” (Selby chairwoman) Hansen said.”

Garden fined in orchid scandal

Garden fined in orchid scandal

Prosecutors say discovery of the Peruvian plant runs afoul of Endangered Species Act. A deal whittles the penalty to $5,000.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 18, 2003
St. Petersburg Times

Selby orchid expert Wesley Higgins also was charged over the ladyslipper orchid, temporarily named Phragmipedium kovachii.

The orchid investigation damaged the reputation of the 13-acre Selby Botanical Gardens, which attracts 160,000 visitors a year. Several board members quit, the executive director was forced out and some major donors withheld pledges. Selby will change its procedures for how it handles orchids from other countries, said chairwoman Barbara Hansen.

In an unprecedented move, federal prosecutors Wednesday brought criminal charges against Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota and one of its employees for their role in the discovery of a dazzling ladyslipper orchid from Peru.

Selby Gardens was charged with a misdemeanor violation of the Endangered Species Act, the first time any botanical gardens in the United States has been charged with such a crime, experts said.

Selby’s board of directors has worked out a plea deal with federal prosecutors that will allow the botanical gardens to pay a fine of $5,000, instead of a potential penalty of up to $100,000.

“I suppose you’d say it was a slap on the wrist,” Selby chairwoman Barbara Hansen said.

One of Selby’s premier orchid experts, Wesley Higgins, also was charged with the same crime.

Higgins declined to comment, and a U.S. Justice Department spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Selby officials at first trumpeted the institution’s role in the June 2002 discovery of the plant species, which they hailed as the most exciting orchid find in a century.

But in August federal agents showed up to search Selby’s records, and a Tampa grand jury issued subpoenas to the staff.

“We didn’t think we were doing anything wrong, but it turned out we did, and we’re sorry we did,” Hansen said.

The yearlong investigation cast a pall over Selby, which draws 160,000 visitors a year to its 13-acre waterfront grounds and greenhouses. The pressure of scrutiny exacerbated tensions on Selby’s board to the point that several board members quit, the executive director was forced out and some major donors withheld pledges.

Hansen said she hopes that by accepting responsibility for its crime, Selby and its staff can put the scandal behind them. She said she hoped Selby would suffer no further consequences, such as the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants.

In addition to the fine, she said Selby has agreed to change its procedures for how it handles orchids from other countries and will encourage other scientific institutions to make similar changes.

“We don’t want other institutions to make the same mistake,” she said. “All institutions are just going to have to be more careful with their paperwork.”

She said Selby will petition the international scientific body in charge of naming species to withdraw the name Selby’s orchid experts gave to the bloom from Peru.

They had named it Phragmipedium kovachii at the request of the man who brought it to them, orchid collector Michael Kovach of Goldvein, Va. Federal agents searched Kovach’s nursery and last month the grand jury indicted him on charges of smuggling and illegally possessing the rare orchid.

He declined to comment Wednesday.

“It’s not a good idea to name an orchid after anybody who brought it into the country illegally,” Hansen said.

Kovach bought the ladyslipper orchid at a remote truck stop in Peru. He knew the minute he saw it that it was unlike any other ladyslipper: a tall stalk topped with a bloom as big as a man’s hand, its petals a hot pink shading into deep purple.

His mentor, a swashbuckling plant collector from Miami named Lee Moore, told him he had found “the Holy Grail of orchids.”

At Moore’s urging, Kovach packed the orchid in his suitcase, flew to Miami and drove the plant to Sarasota. When he carried it into a roomful of experts at Selby Gardens, he was greeted by “a simultaneous wave of eye-widening and mouth opening,” Kovach wrote in an orchid-collector newsletter.

Every year hundreds of collectors consult Selby’s experts on the proper identification of the species they find. Higgins, in an e-mail to orchid enthusiasts last year, said Selby’s experts never checked whether the collectors had the proper paperwork.

When Kovach brought them his stunning find, they focused instead on rushing into print the first scientific description of the species, a move that would bring international acclaim for Selby among orchid circles.

In a 2002 interview with the PBS program Nova, Higgins called the flower “spectacular.” He “scrambled to put together a team of three experts to write a Latin description of the new phragmipedium,” the show reported.

The mustachioed Higgins is a familiar face at Florida orchid shows, where he frequently works as a judge. Retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 26 years, he earned graduate degrees in horticultural science and botany. His specialty is plant identification and classification.

According to Kovach’s account, Higgins was aware another plant identification expert, a disgruntled former Selby employee named Eric Christenson, was rushing to get a description of the orchid into print.

Kovach wrote that Higgins told him “a race for access to the plant had developed. He said it looked like I had won that race.” Selby beat Christenson into print by five days.

Christenson cried foul, as did Peruvian authorities. Kovach had brought the orchid out of Peru without getting the permits international law require for trade in endangered species, a law that covers ladyslipper orchids.

Christenson contended such illegal conduct is commonplace among botanical gardens, because until now the law was never enforced.

“Everybody takes this as a joke,” he said Wednesday. Seeing Selby charged “is just glorious news.”

Times staff writer Graham Brink and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

Selby’s takes the low road

I had to laugh at this quote from Selby’s in response to criminal charges against Kovach for orchid smuggling:

“I think that pretty well proves that the garden is quite innocent of any wrongdoing except in accepting the orchid to identify it…(Selby’s stated) last year that Kovach produced the proper paperwork upon his arrival and that ‘we would have kicked him out’ if he didn’t have it.’ (They) also said that Selby does not check or verify papers. “

Wow, there’s a spectacular display of hypocrisy. Selby’s knew very well there was no way the orchid could have been brought in to the U.S. legally, thanks to the convoluted logic of CITES regulations. In their rush to get their names consigned to posterity, they forgot to cover their posteriors.

Grand jury indictment handed down in Selby orchid debacle

Herald Tribune
SARASOTA — A Virginia nursery owner who brought a rare orchid to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of smuggling the plant into the country.

The grand jury in Tampa last week indicted James Michael Kovach on charges of smuggling and illegally possessing a rare Peruvian orchid now named for him: Phragmipedium kovachii.

Kovach, 48, has not been taken into custody. If convicted of the felony charge of smuggling and the misdemeanor charge of possession he will face up to six years in prison and fines of up to $350,000.

The feds are also in negotiation with Selby’s board of trustees over the garden’s punishment for accepting the orchid in June 2002, and then naming it a week later.

Barbara Hansen, chairwoman of the board, said Thursday that Kovach’s indictment clears the non-profit research center along U.S. 41 of most of the blame in the matter.

“I think that pretty well proves that the garden is quite innocent of any wrongdoing except in accepting the orchid to identify it,” Hansen said.

The indictment is the latest in a string of challenges facing Selby. Several key staffers have quit in recent months including Shawn Farr, the man hired in May to stabilize the gardens. Farr cited disagreements with Hansen and other board members.

More than a half-dozen board members have quit and several large donors have withheld their contributions over the board’s firing in July of Meg
Lowman, Selby’s popular director since 1999.

Former board member Bob Richardson has also asked local and state officials to look into the current board’s handling of the gardens’ affairs and whether there are enough trustees left to legally run the place.

In the orchid world, Kovach’s orchid has been described as the most spectacular find in 100 years.

Federal investigators have charged that Kovach brought the orchid into the United States in violation of the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species treaty.

The treaty is intended to keep threatened plants and animals from being spirited out of the wild.

Kovach found the flower in May 2002 while on an orchid-collecting trip in Moyobamba, a city in the high jungles of northeastern Peru.

Kovach’s discovery wasn’t the result of years of hunting; he bought the plant in a pot from a roadside flower stand. Moyobamba, population 95,000, capital of the sprawling San Martín province, is also known as “The Orchid City” because of its abundance of flowers and its thriving orchid trade.

Still, as a commercial nursery owner, Kovach knew what he’d found. The flower, sort of a peachy color with patches of purple, was at least twice as
big as any “lady slipper” orchid anyone had ever seen.

Kovach flew back to the States and went through U.S. Customs in Miami. He declared he had plants and was whisked through. Kovach headed straight for Selby, where, on June 5, he met with Dr. Wesley E. Higgins, head of the orchid identification center, and Dr. John T. Atwood, then Selby’s orchid curator.

Higgins still works at the gardens, but Atwood left last year.

It’s unclear what, if any, paperwork was produced when Kovach showed up.

Lowman told the Herald-Tribune last year that Kovach produced the proper paperwork upon his arrival and that “we would have kicked him out” if he didn’t have it.

Lowman also said that Selby does not check or verify papers.

Hundreds of amateurs stream through Selby every month seeking to have their orchids identified, she said, and checking paperwork is akin to
law enforcement work for which Selby is ill-suited.

Orchid growing is big business. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are more than 700 orchid growers in the United States with sales topping $100 million annually.

When a new orchid is found, there is prestige waiting for whoever publishes the discovery first. And according to internationally accepted rules of
plant nomenclature, the first to publish a description of a species gets to name it.

Selby, after a marathon session of writing, research, description and peer review via Internet, published a brief description in a special handout on June 10, 2002. The handout’s tiny circulation didn’t meet accepted standards for publication, though.

Two days later, just a week after Kovach dropped off the flower, Selby published its description in a special edition of its journal “Selbyana,” which did meet the requirements.

A woman who answered the phone Thursday at Kovach’s home in Goldvein, Va., declined to comment and hung up.

Selby’s light-speed naming of the orchid beat out Eric A. Christenson, a former Selby taxonomist who was working to name the same plant.

Christenson said Thursday that he feels that Selby got caught up in a trend in the orchid community of playing loose with the rules.

“Selby wouldn’t be in the trouble it is today if it hadn’t taken baby steps toward this,” he said. “It’s kind of indicative of a system gone wrong.”

Christenson said he harbors no ill will to those who remain at Selby, but that there is no way anyone could have thought they would get away with any
involvement in smuggling a high-profile orchid into the country.

“These people are idiots,” he said. “It’s way too high profile to get away with. And they didn’t.”

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

A rat among the orchids….

This is the flower that has brought down an entire institution, that has U.S. federal agents intercepting and reading private email, that has an elderly couple in the U.S. terrorized after a raid at gunpoint to seize their life’s work from a backyard greenhouse: Phragmipedium Kovachii.

This huge slipper orchid was discovered in May 2002 by an American named Mike Kovach, who found it on sale at a roadside stand in a remote corner of Peru. It was the most important orchid discovery in 100 years, but in order to make it official, a complete description had to be written up by a taxonomist who is authorized to name new plants, and the results published.

Mr. Kovach, eager to see his name preserved for posterity, took a specimen back to the U.S. and presented it to Selby Botanical Gardens (who has five such experts on staff) for identification. Selby’s, eager for the prestige associated with naming this new plant, overlooked the fact that there was no way it could have arrived there legally; Phrags. are a protected species and in order to get the proper permits to export them, CITES regulations require documentation that it wasn’t collected from the wild, including the name of the plant. A bizarre catch-22 situation.

A disgruntled ex-employee of Selby’s, Eric Christenson, who is also a respected taxonomist, was also aware of the plant. He had been shown pictures and was working with contacts in Peru to describe it, and publish his results. He planned to call it “Phrag. Peruvianum”. Selby’s, figuring that the race was on, rushed to publish their results and beat Christenson to it by a matter of weeks.

Christenson was bent on revenge, and called the wrath of the Federal Fish & Wildlife service down on Selby’s. Raids, fines, serious jail time seem to be imminent for the board. To add to their misery, Selby supporters who are counted on for big donations are holding on to their cheques in protest of Selby’s unsportmanlike behaviour. Oops.

Enter George (“the Old Wrangler”) Norris, who’s home and greenhouse was raided and ransacked by the Fish & Wildlife service in October. The Fish & Wildlife Service had obtained a search warrant on the basis of a personal email they had intercepted two years earlier, in which a crackpot offered to smuggle in some plants for George. The warrant conveniently omitted George’s reply telling him not to bother, he wasn’t interested.

Perhaps the most alarming element of this drama is the evidence that George’s private email was intercepted and used against him. Apparently, if you send or receive an email with the words “phragmipedium” and “Peru” in it, your message will end up in the hands of some sinister secret agent whose job it is to sit in a dark room and violate your privacy.

The story continues. Smelling a rat, fellow orchid growers did some sleuthing, and they turned up an interesting email message of their own.

In late July this year, George forwarded an Orchid Society newsletter entitled “SOS UPDATE, NEWSLETTER, GOSSIP SHEET AND EARLY TICKLER” to Eric Christenson as a friendly gesture. Unfortunately, among its news, gossip, and offerings the newsletter also contained an innocent (or naive) remark by George that “it is also possible that we may have some very legal Phrag Kovachii (complete with good CITES documents) after the first of the year.”

Christenson, determined to “grind this axe right down to its handle”, forwarded the message to Marie Holt, a Fish & Wildlife service agent, with the note,

“I just thought that you should know that the rumors are starting that legal plants of this species are a possibility.

I hope that the Federal Grand Jury looking into the role of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in the smuggling of this CITES Appendix I plant goes well.”

In mid-October, George’s greenhouse was raided.

Ha! The plot thickens. This will eventually make a great book, but I have a feeling there will be more twists and turns before this story is over.

Proving once again that flowers are not boring

Tampa Bay: A whiff of scandal:

The orchid was incredibly beautiful and exceedingly rare. But in its allure lay the seeds of destruction for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and those who were seduced by the lust for a flower.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
Published November 2, 2003

Orchidmain_1OrchidSARASOTA – Each year more than 160,000 people stroll through Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and are dazzled by its spectacular orchid collection, from showy Cattleyas to delicate Paphiopedilums.

But the most important orchid in Selby Gardens’ history is not on display.

It’s the one that could wreck the place.

When orchid collector Michael Kovach first spotted it at a roadside stand in Peru, he knew he had never seen anything like it: a tall stalk topped with a bloom as big as a man’s hand, its petals a hot pink shading into deep purple.

As Kovach carried that dazzling flower into a roomful of Selby Gardens’ scientists in June 2002, he was greeted by “a simultaneous wave of eye-widening and mouth opening,” Kovach wrote in an orchid-collector newsletter.

Selby’s staff moved quickly to lay claim to the honor of naming the new orchid. Working around the clock, they cranked out a scientific description and published it in a special edition of Selby’s own journal.

At Kovach’s request, they named the plant after him: Phragmipedium kovachii. The announcement, hailed as one of the biggest orchid discoveries in 100 years, garnered international acclaim for the 13-acre institution on Sarasota Bay.

Making the triumph even sweeter was the fact that Selby had beaten into print a rival orchid expert who was on the verge of publishing his own scientific description of the new species.

But the taste of triumph soured. Peruvian officials lodged a formal complaint. Two months after he walked into Selby Gardens with the orchid, Kovach’s greenhouse in Virginia was raided by federal agents. They rooted through Selby Gardens’ records, too. A federal grand jury in Tampa has subpoenaed a dozen Selby employees and board members.

As the yearlong investigation draws to a close, Selby is likely to be charged with violating laws designed to protect endangered plants from poachers. Selby’s staff believes prosecutors will make an example of them to placate Peru, said Selby’s crisis management consultant, Jeffrey Tucker.

A criminal conviction could bring large fines and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money. Individuals could even face jail time. Attorneys’ fees already are squeezing the garden’s $3.2-million budget.

“It’s a real mess,” said Paul Martin Brown, author of Wild Orchids of Florida. “It tarnishes Selby’s reputation.”

* * *

The orchid scandal has so exacerbated tension among Selby’s leadership that the executive director and eight board members have resigned. Furious donors are withholding contributions.

Selby officials are “all kind of shocked at how they got into the middle of this,” Tucker said. They had nothing but the best of intentions, he said.

To Eric Christenson, the rival beaten by Selby, none of this is surprising. He says Selby’s staff should never have let Kovach in the door.

“These people are idiots,” he said. “Everyone involved knew it was illegal.”

How could so much trouble stem from a single flower? To Lee Moore the answer is obvious.

A veteran orchid collector whose business cards identify him as “The Adventurer,” Moore advised Kovach in Peru. He says Kovach’s craving for fame overrode concerns about legalities.

“Oh, the cost of fame,” said Moore, chuckling.

Kovach (pronounced KO-vack), 48, lives in rural Virginia. Once a carpenter, he says God led him to the orchid business.

It was a heavenly calling into a hellish obsession.

While most orchid fanciers are content with the selection at Home Depot, a few are willing to blow $10,000 on one plant or brave any hardship to discover a new species.

Orchid Fever author Eric Hansen blames the flowers’ sensual form. The tumescent blooms and intoxicating scent can cloud a collector’s judgment.

Driven by passion, some orchid fanciers would spend their last dime for a flower such as the one Kovach found.

“When a man falls in love with orchids, he’ll do anything to possess the one he wants,” Norman McDonald wrote in his 1939 book The Orchid Hunters. “It’s like chasing a green-eyed woman or taking cocaine, it’s a sort of madness.”

But such madness may run afoul of the law. Wild orchids are protected by an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It prohibits collecting endangered plants in the wild for export. Trade is permitted only if the exporting country certifies the plants were grown in a nursery or laboratory.

Few orchid experts like the treaty’s rules, Brown said, and some would like to get rid of them. Thousands of orchids can be destroyed by a new road but collecting a few for scientific study can be nearly impossible.

One orchid expert, Guido Braeme, punched out a customs official who accused him of smuggling. Still, Braeme was fined because he had no export permit for an orchid preserved in alcohol since 1822.

According to Braeme, the rules are particularly maddening when the orchid is newly discovered. To get a permit to export it for study requires listing a name, but at that point there is no name.

“You smuggle or you cheat,” Braeme explained. “Legally you can’t win.”

Still, botanical gardens continue to describe new species from other countries, Braeme said, suggesting they were all “based on illegal plants.”

Christenson, Kovach’s rival who used to work for Selby, says he quit when he was ordered to write a grant proposal for propagating an illegally obtained orchid.

“Everyone treats it with a kind of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink,”

Christenson said. “This is what all botanical gardens are doing.”

Selby’s own rules require permits for plants shipped to its Orchid Identification Center. But so many orchids are sent to Selby “the Gardens does not require the submitters to provide documentation as to the sources of the plants,” center director Wesley Higgins wrote last year.

Moore says in all his years of shipping orchids to Selby, “nobody ever said boo about permits.”

So Moore says he advised Kovach to put his orchid in a suitcase and head for Selby without a permit.

“I know he’s supposed to have a permit . . . and he knows that very well, too,” Moore said. But Moore said he told Kovach: “Take the (expletive) thing up there to Selby. If you try for a permit, you’ll never get a permit.”

* * *

Moore has spent 25 years traipsing around South American jungles, collecting pre-Columbian art and new orchid species. Several are named for him.

In The Orchid Thief, author Susan Orlean quotes Moore’s Peruvian wife, Chady, as saying, “We were always smuggling something. . . . We had more going on, more situations than Indiana Jones! Oh, my God!”

The Moores live in Miami but are building a nursery near the Peruvian city of Moyobamba. In 1996, flying back to Miami, Moore met Kovach. They started talking orchids and friendship blossomed.

“He told me once, “Lee, you’re famous because you’ve got a lot of plants named for you. I wish I could have a plant named for me,” Moore recalled.

Last year, they agreed to rendezvous in Peru. In an orchid-collector newsletter published this summer, Kovach wrote that he went there to “discuss setting up a species production facility,” using the Moores’ nursery. He said they cut a deal. Moore denies it.

On May 26, 2002, Kovach hired the Moores’ driver to take him orchid hunting. About 3:30 p.m., Kovach wrote, they stopped at a place the map called El Progresso, actually just a truck stop.

Farmers were selling orchids in the parking lot. Kovach picked out a few from a young brother and sister. The woman offered to fetch some special plants from behind the building.

“She then quickly reappeared cradling three pots containing plants with large dark rose flowers,” Kovach wrote. “They appeared to be slipper orchids of some kind, but I’d never seen anything like this.”

Kovach says he bought all three for $3.60 each.

When Kovach showed them to his mentor later, Moore was stunned at their beauty. He remembered Kovach’s hankering to have an orchid named after him. He says he told Kovach, “This is your chance. You’ve got the Holy Grail of orchids.”

* * *

In the Garden of Eden, Adam named everything. These days it’s more complicated. There are strict rules on publishing new scientific names, and only certain taxonomists can do the naming.

The American Orchid Society’s list of approved taxonomists consists of just 23 experts, none in Peru. Last year, five were affiliated with Selby, more than any other botanical garden.

Selby’s experts knew about the orchid before Kovach arrived on June 5, 2002. A Texas grower had e-mailed them photos he had seen. They had also heard that Christenson had penned a description for Orchids magazine, to be published June 17.

Kovach wrote that Higgins, the center director, told him “a race for access to the plant had developed. He said it looked like I had won that race.” As a result, Selby beat Christenson into print by five days.

Christenson had wanted to name the new orchid Phragmipedium peruvianum as a salute to Peru. He based his description on photos that had been e-mailed to him by a Peruvian nursery owner, because all ladyslipper orchids are on a most-endangered list.

“Anyone with half a brain cell doesn’t go near them,” Christenson said. “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.”

Selby’s experts did neither. Kovach’s newsletter account makes no mention of anyone asking him for permits. But in a December 2002 letter to federal authorities, Selby’s attorney wrote: “Kovach advised Selby Gardens staff that he had legally imported the orchid into the United States and subsequently provided Selby Gardens with certain USDA permits and Peruvian certificates to support them.”

After Selby’s scientists accepted Kovach’s flower they asked him what to call it, and he told them to use his name.

“I thought, well why not? I’ve worked long and hard; it can’t hurt,” Kovach wrote.

Christenson says naming it kovachii was tantamount to saying, “Hey, come arrest me!”

Three months later U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers raided Kovach’s greenhouse. Then they hit Selby with a grand jury subpoena.

Kovach contends he didn’t need a permit because he wasn’t transporting the orchid for commercial purposes, an argument experts don’t buy.

“His claim is nonsense,” said Ned Nash of the American Orchid Society.

Selby’s legal problems are more complicated.

Kovach left the orchid at Selby Gardens. After Selby’s scientists finished, they shipped it to a museum in Peru without a permit.

“In the strictest sense of the word, they broke the law,” Nash said.

They also did not send back the entire plant.

As the scientists stood around Kovach’s orchid “it began striking everyone that this was the last they were going to see of this,” said Tucker, Selby’s consultant. “It was taken from a high altitude in Peru and it was not going to survive in Sarasota. And someone said, “Why kill the last condor?’ ”

So one Selby expert, John Atwood, took a piece to his home in Vermont to see if it would grow, Tucker said. Federal officials have now confiscated it.

Selby officials were caught off guard by the investigation. Then-director Meg Lowman, a rain forest biologist who wrote a critically acclaimed memoir called Life in the Trees, was not even in town when Kovach showed up with his orchid.

But she became the orchid’s first casualty.

For two years Lowman was the target of repeated sniping from Selby’s chairman, a prominent orchid grower named Bob Scully who four years ago was banned from Selby’s greenhouses over complaints of sexual harassment and other problems.

According to Lowman’s attorney, Robert Rivas, Scully was informed by Selby’s experts about Kovach’s orchid the day after it arrived, and he “enthusiastically endorsed” rushing the news into print, even meeting with the orchid experts to discuss it.

When Selby’s board learned of the federal investigation, board members asked Scully to deal with it, said former board member Bob Richardson.

“We were always hopeful this thing was going to blow away,” Richardson said. “It just kept escalating as time went on.”

Tension among board members escalated, too. For Richardson, the last straw came when “we were sitting in a meeting with the board and Scully was saying he thought Meg hadn’t told the truth about what happened.”

Richardson quit. He had pledged $100,000 to Selby, but plans to give it to Lowman for her legal defense. Then Lowman was forced out, along with board members who supported her. Several have vowed to withhold donations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In Peru, the government posted fliers in the airports warning against smuggling the new orchid. But collectors stripped the site where Kovach’s three plants came from, and the plants are selling for $1,000 each in Europe, said Harold Koopowitz, editor of Orchid Digest.

Five months ago, though, Koopowitz saw 1,000 more growing on a remote cliff in the Andes. Their best protection is their location. Getting to them, Koopowitz wrote, required making what he called “the hike from hell.”

One person who hopes to profit from this is The Adventurer. When Kovach flew to Selby he left two of his orchids with Moore, who later paid local farmers to gather about 200 more for his nursery. The Moores now await the day when trade in them will be legal and lucrative.

Most people connected to the case declined to comment. Kovach, who initially was talking to the New York Times, Washington Post and People, now refuses all interview requests as he awaits the grand jury’s decision.

“My life is ruined,” he told People. “The bottom line is, it’s just a flower. Everybody’s lost their mind.”

   – Times staff writers Graham Brink and David Adams and researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.