Online Orchid Drama Eclipses Reality TV…

George Norris, a crusty old orchid grower from Texas, has yet again found himself squarely in the sights of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Department of Homeland Security.

George, along with his business associate Peruvian grower Manuel Arias-Silver, is charged with conspiracy to smuggle endangered phragmipediums (orchids) into the U.S. Since Manuel is one of only three growers to have been given permission by the Peruvian government to artificially propagate the newly discovered phragmipedium Kovachii, it appears that the U.S. government has singled out the pair for special attention over suspicions that this is the species they were smuggling. There appears to be little evidence of this, though it is likely the pair were taking some shortcuts on paperwork because of the challenges of importing other, legally propagated species, into the U.S.

In the orchid world, the CITES treaty is almost universally denounced; the charge is that it does nothing to stop habitat destruction, and actually encourages illegal smuggling of wild-collected plants because the regulations make it so difficult to trade in artifically-propagated specimens.

George originally found himself in his government’s crosshairs last year, after sending out a newsletter to his customers mentioning the Peruvian government’s decision to allow three respected Peruvian growers to propogate the orchids, raising the possibility that they would be available legally for sale in the United States within the next few years. Considering that his information came directly from Manuel, with whom he had done business many times, the newsletter reference was not unreasonable. However, Eric Christenson, the taxonomist who was still severely disgruntled over losing the race to name the species, was one of the recipients of the newsletter. He forwarded the message on to the F&WS suggesting they investigate the “rumours”. A couple of months later, the F&WS raided George Norris’ greenhouse. Then, Manuel was arrested by authorities on his way to a major international orchid show in Miami on March 5th. The F&WS, strongly criticised by the orchid community for their heavy-handed tactics, released the contents of private email they secretly intercepted between the two men to the media, in an apparent attempt to garner favourable public opinion.

Support continues to be strong for George and Manuel, but the situation looks grim for the two men. An outspoken and “patriotic American”, George’s growing sense of betrayal and disillusionment with his beloved right-wing government has been painful to behold. The obvious stress is taking it’s toll, resulting in a particularly spectacular flame-war on the Orchid Guide Digest list between Eric Christenson (“I will begin immediate legal action against [the Orchid Digest List] for allowing this filth on your website”) and George Norris (accusing Eric of hot air and eating too many Krispy Kremes). It’s an online version of the worst kind of reality TV, kind of like watching a train wreck in slow-motion.

Then, just when the name-calling and threats were threatening to take over the entire tone of discussion, along comes Oliver Sparrow to the rescue, like the orchid super-hero he is….