The Case of the Purloined Orchid

By:

Every year, more than 160,000 people wander through the lush landscape of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Many of them are drawn to this tranquil 15-acre paradise on Sarasota Bay to gaze in amazement at Selby’s vast orchid collection, marveling at the vivid colors and fantastic shapes on display. But the most important orchid in Selby […]


+1Share on LinkedInPin it on Pinterest

Every year, more than 160,000 people wander through the lush landscape of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Many of them are drawn to this tranquil 15-acre paradise on Sarasota Bay to gaze in amazement at Selby’s vast orchid collection, marveling at the vivid colors and fantastic shapes on display.

But the most important orchid in Selby Gardens’ 30-year history is not on view. It’s the one that made headlines around the country. The one that cost the gardens hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and helped spark the ouster of its longtime director. The one that led to search warrants, a grand jury investigation and criminal charges.

The one that bloomed into a scandal so big it has hurt Selby’s carefully tended reputation.

The first time Virginia orchid grower James Michael Kovach spotted the flower at a dusty roadside stand in Peru, he knew it was something special: a tall and spindly stalk, topped with a full, round, pinkish-purple bloom as big as his hand. When Kovach carried that ladyslipper orchid into a roomful of scientists at Selby Gardens in June 2002, he was greeted by "a simultaneous wave of eye-widening and mouth opening," he later wrote.

Selby’s orchid experts hailed it as the most astounding discovery in a century. They rushed to be the first to publish a scientific description, forever linking Selby’s name with the plant. They were so enthralled by the flower’s beauty that they failed to anticipate the legal consequences, both to their employer and to themselves.

"What we weren’t aware of was how we could get caught up in this web," says onetime Selby orchid expert John Atwood, who got a personal visit at home from federal investigators. "It was a shock."

But rival orchid expert Eric Christenson, a longtime critic of Selby who lost the race to be the first to publish a description of the new orchid, scoffs at any claims of innocent intentions gone awry. "These people are idiots," he says. "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 any concern about what was legal.

"Oh, the cost of fame," says Moore, chuckling.

Kovach (pronounced KO-vack) is 49 years old, a tall, slender man who wears his long hair pulled back in a ponytail. 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 thousands of dollars on a single plant or brave any hardship to discover a new species-particularly one that can be crossed with others to create colorful new hybrids.

Writers have struggled for years to explain why orchids drive otherwise rational people to such extremes. Some have linked the passion to the flowers’ sensual form. They say the pouty-lipped petals, tumescent blooms and intoxicating scents cloud a collector’s judgment.

"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."

Orchids are more than a botanical obsession. They’re also a $2-billion a year industry, making them the most lucrative flower business worldwide. That’s just the legal side of the business. Nobody knows how much money goes into the illegal trade, but consider this: When federal officials busted a Texas nursery owner in 2003 for dealing in illegal Peruvian orchids, they found records indicating three shipments had sold for more than $45,000.

Wild orchids are supposed to be protected by an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES for short, which 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 CITES rules, which do nothing to prevent the wholesale destruction of thousands of orchids by the builders of a new road or dam, but make it extremely difficult for scientists to collect a few specimens for study.

The CITES rules are particularly maddening when the orchid in question is a newly discovered variety from a Third World country. To get a permit to take it out of its country of origin requires listing a name, but if it’s a new species it has no name to list.

Yet somehow botanical gardens around the world, including Selby, have continued to describe new species discovered in countries that would never issue a CITES permit allowing them to be shipped overseas, notes German orchid expert Guido Braem. That means every one of those scientific discoveries was almost certainly "based on illegal plants," Braem points out.

Selby officials are no fans of CITES. In 1991 one of its top orchid experts, John Beckner, wrote that CITES had not saved a single orchid but instead had "resulted in the destruction of plants, the obstruction and discouragement of private efforts and the tying up of much precious time and energy in paperwork and rituals demanded of growers."

Beckner was in an ideal position to form his low opinion of CITES. Selby Gardens, founded in 1975, is renowned worldwide for its orchid collection. The garden, the legacy of philanthropist Marie Selby, has an annual budget of $3.2 million and employs 50 people, some of whom-including Beckner-work at its Orchid Identification Center. The center has long been housed in a nondescript wooden building across the street from the gardens and greenhouses that attract the tourists, although this year it’s scheduled to move into a new building on the main campus.

Every year hundreds of specimens are shipped to the center for Selby’s orchid experts to determine what they are. Until Kovach showed up, there had never been a whiff of public scandal about its operation.

But Christenson, a Sarasota resident, says he resigned from Selby’s staff 10 years ago when a former Selby director ordered him to write up a grant proposal for propagating a South American orchid that had been smuggled in by another employee.

"Everyone treats it with a kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink," Christenson says. "This is what all botanical gardens are doing…The problem is the hypocrisy."

Selby’s own rules required permits for plants shipped to its Orchid Identification Center. But that rule was not enforced. 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 in a posting to an orchid lovers’ online bulletin board.

Higgins, a Cape Coral resident, is a soft-spoken man with a handlebar mustache. A lifelong orchid hobbyist and sometime orchid show judge, he had previously spent 26 years in the Coast Guard before getting his Ph.D. and landing his Selby job. In a recent interview, he contended it was standard practice for all botanical gardens to turn a blind eye to permits, or a lack of them, until the Selby scandal erupted.

Moore says in all his years of shipping orchids to Selby for identification, "Nobody ever said boo about permits." So when Kovach brought Moore the newly discovered orchid and asked him what to do with it, Moore says he told his friend: "Take the G——-d f—ing thing up there to Selby. If you try for a permit, you’ll never get a permit."

* * *

Moore has spent a quarter century traipsing around South American jungles, collecting everything from new orchid species-some of which are now named for him-to pre-Columbian art. More than once his swashbuckling ways got him in trouble with the law.

He and his Peruvian wife, Chady, live outside Miami; but they’re building a large nursery in Peru, near the town of Myombomba. Perched in the Andes, Myombomba is known as "The City of Orchids" because so many grow wild in the surrounding countryside.

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 recalls.

Kovach traveled again to Peru in 2001 and made a fateful stop at a roadside stand, where he saw some orchids growing that intrigued him. But they weren’t in bloom, so he didn’t buy any then.

A year later, in the spring of 2002, Moore and Kovach made plans to go to Peru again. Moore flew down on the same plane as Kovach and Kovach’s wife, Barbara Ellison, a professional photographer. According to an account written by Kovach, he went there to "discuss setting up a species production facility," using the Moores’ nursery. "The Moores were receptive to this idea…We came to a tentative verbal agreement."

Federal investigators later questioned whether the pair had a different kind of deal-one that involved smuggling plants out of Peru to sell to well-heeled collectors, or maybe to create some new hybrids that they could mass-market. The same month that Kovach said he and Moore joined forces, there were reports of a Peruvian nursery owner showing up at a Miami orchid show offering to sell a previously undiscovered ladyslipper orchid for $10,000 per plant. Given the timing, a federal prosecutor later told a judge, the Moore-Kovach partnership looked "an awful lot like a conspiracy."

But Moore denies he and Kovach had any deal, legal or otherwise, and neither has ever been charged with conspiracy. Kovach declined to comment.

On May 26, 2002, in Peru, 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, at the same roadside stand he had visited the year before.

Kovach picked out a few orchids from a table run by 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." Their flowers, he later testified, were "too big, too colorful."

The price: $3.60 apiece, more than seven times what the stand was charging for the other orchids. When the brother balked at Kovach’s attempt to haggle, Kovach agreed to pay the full price.

That night, when Kovach showed his find to Moore, the veteran orchid collector was stunned. 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. Only certain scientists, called taxonomists, can do the naming.

The American Orchid Society’s list of approved taxonomists consists of just 23 experts, none in Peru. In 2002, five were affiliated with Selby, more than any other botanical garden. That’s why Moore told Kovach to head for Selby, and fast. Moore’s wife says she and her husband told the Kovachs that "if they wanted this flower to carry the name of Kovach they would have to hurry," because these were the same orchids that had created such a buzz at the Miami orchid show a week or two before.

So Kovach rolled up one plant in a cardboard tube and put it in his suitcase. He packed that suitcase and another one full of other, more common orchids that he had purchased while in Peru. Both Moore and Kovach say he left the other two new orchids behind at the Moores’ greenhouse.

Kovach has always contended that his only interest in getting the orchid to Selby was to get his discovery named and put under proper legal protection in the wild. However, in a written statement he gave to federal investigators, he said, "Initial steps were taken to artificially propagate them en masse. I will sell none until the survival of the species is assured."

With his prize orchid hidden among other flowers, Kovach and his wife flew to Miami, the biggest hot spot in the South for wildlife smuggling. Federal agents there have found marmosets hidden under passengers’ hats, Cuban parrot chicks tucked into a woman’s bra-one per cup-and on one memorable occasion, 45 red-footed tortoises stuffed in a man’s parachute pants. With so much smuggling going on, federal inspectors say they can’t spare a single person to stand watch at the airport baggage carousel.

When Kovach and his wife arrived on June 4, 2002, Kovach announced to the customs inspectors that he was carrying live plants. Instead of being sent for a more detailed inspection, Kovach told investigators later, he was simply waved on through, no questions asked.

The next morning the couple drove to Sarasota, ready to grab a share of immortality.

* * *

Although Selby’s experts say they had never met Kovach before, they were already familiar with the flower he carried.

John Beckner had just returned from the Miami orchid show with tales about the dazzling new flower from Peru. A Texas grower had e-mailed Selby’s experts photos he had seen. And they had heard that Christenson-who is also among the American Orchid Society’s 23 experts-had penned a description of the new orchid as a last-minute entry for Orchids magazine, to be published June 17.

Christenson had wanted to name the new orchid Phragmipedium peruvianum as a salute to Peru. Although the normal procedure is to base such descriptions on live plants, Christenson says 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 says. "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. "We didn’t make the one phone call to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," says Higgins. "If it happened today, that’s the one thing we’d do differently."

When Kovach and his wife showed up, a volunteer took them back to where Higgins, Atwood and other orchid experts were at work. When Kovach walked in carrying a slightly wilted but still spectacular flower, the room lit up with excitement.

"This is a very big thing in the orchid world," Selby orchid expert and illustrator Stig Dalstrom later testified. "It’s like discovering a new species of elephant in Argentina or something."

Someone—no one seems to remember who—asked if Kovach had the proper permits, and he said yes. Selby’s experts still had "lots of concerns" about the legality of the orchid, Dalstrom testified, but it was just too juicy an opportunity to pass up.

"It would be a scientific feat for the gardens to describe something like this," Dalstrom said. "We’re an organization, we depend on reputation. We depend on publicity…to get funds and sources and support, and we wanted to describe this thing."

And they had to be the first to do it, he explained, because "Nobody wants to fund researchers that are lagging behind."

The prospect of beating Christenson into print made the situation even sweeter. He had been a thorn in Selby’s side for years, blasting them in profane e-mails and letters.

"Everybody at the Gardens hates him and he hates them, and when the opportunity came up to beat him, they did it with glee," Selby board member Carlyle Luer told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Kovach wrote that Higgins, the center director, told him Christenson had been bragging about the impending publication and "a race for access to the plant had developed. He said it looked like I had won that race." However, Higgins contends he had "no idea” Christenson was ready to publish.

Before Kovach and his wife left to go home to Virginia, one of Selby’s experts asked him what he would like to call his discovery. "I thought, ‘Well, why not? I’ve worked long and hard; it can’t hurt,’" Kovach wrote. So he suggested, "Phragmipedium kovachii."

According to Christenson, that was tantamount to telling federal officials, "Hey, come arrest me!"

* * *

The day after Kovach’s visit, Higgins e-mailed Selby board chairman Bob Scully-a retired commercial grower from Miami who has worked as an orchid show judge with both Higgins and Beckner-and Selby’s executive director, Meg Lowman.

"A new purple species of Phrag came into the OIC yesterday,” Higgins wrote. "We need to publish next week to be first.” It could be bigger than any previous Selby discovery, he told them.

Scully quickly e-mailed back that it was "a fabulous opportunity” and expressed "hope there is a way to get this in print.soonest.” Lowman was vacationing in Ohio, but told Higgins in her reply, "Please figure out what is best for the orchid world.”

No one made any mention about permits. In her subsequent discussions with the staff, Lowman said, the only cautionary note she heard from anyone was the concern that Christenson "might become violent” when he learned he had been beaten.

Under Higgins’ guidance, Selby’s orchid team worked around the clock to get a special edition of the gardens’ own publication, Selbyana, into print with a complete scientific description of the new orchid. The publication was credited to Atwood, Dalstrom and a Peruvian colleague who reviewed their work via e-mail, Ricardo Fernandez. Higgins’ name did not appear.

When it was done, Selby put out a press release touting the discovery and Selby’s role in it.

"This has got to be one of the most important plant discoveries for Selby Gardens and for the entire orchid world in the past 100 years," Beckner told the Herald-Tribune then. The commercial possibilities were equally exciting, he noted: "It is going to open up a whole new line of orchid hybridizing."

Eight days after Selbyana came out, though, Selby’s troubles began.

Peruvian authorities contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to complain that Kovach had taken the plant out of their country illegally. They demanded its swift return. Federal officials launched an investigation.

In the meantime, Scully says he got a phone call from Moore, whom he first met decades ago in Miami. Scully says Moore called "seeking information on people who might be interested in buying his collected Phragmipedium kovachii for $5,000 a growth. I told him I certainly wasn’t interested.”

In August, the investigation kicked into high gear. Armed wildlife officers showed up at Kovach’s white clapboard house in rural Goldvein, Va., with a search warrant. They impounded computers, plants, papers and photos. Two days later they showed up at Selby Gardens with subpoenas for its records relating to Kovach’s orchid. News of the investigation soon generated more publicity than the gardens had ever had before. Stories about it appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, even People magazine.

Yet Selby’s orchid experts, apparently unaware of having sparked an international incident, were still naively boasting about their discovery. When the PBS science program Nova came calling for interviews, Higgins, Dalstrom and Beckner all happily appeared on camera to talk about what they had done. There was no mention of the investigation.

Dalstrom, later testifying before a federal grand jury, said Higgins and the other Selby experts had not been fooled by Kovach. They knew he didn’t have a CITES permit. But they came up with a plan they thought would keep them out of trouble with the law and still let them beat Christenson. They would publish their description in Selbyana, and then ship the Phragmipedium kovachii back to Peru.

There were only two problems with that plan: Selby officials sent Kovach’s plant to a museum in Peru that was not legally permitted to receive such wildlife, thus breaking the law again.

Worse, they didn’t send all of it back.

As the scientists stood around Kovach’s orchid, "It began striking everyone that this was the last they were going to see of this," says Jeffrey Tucker, a crisis consultant who advised Selby’s board on handling the legal crisis. "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 Atwood took a piece to his home in Vermont to see if it would grow. By August, Atwood had managed to produce five new roots and a single new shoot.

"I was going to become a big hero," Atwood says with a heavy sigh.

Higgins says he was unaware that Atwood had kept part of the plant. "He did that totally on his own," he says. Scully, who has also known Atwood for years, says he didn’t know, either. Nor did Lowman, who is not an orchid expert but a well-known rain forest researcher whose memoir, Life in the Trees, had won critical raves.

Despite that first federal subpoena, Lowman initially thought the investigation was nothing serious. Nevertheless, she asked all the employees who had been involved in publishing the name to give her a written statement about what happened. The next morning, she says, Atwood called her, "anxious and upset and distraught," and confessed to what he had done.

When the research staff submitted their written reports, Lowman says, "I got six reports and they were all different. No one admitted John took this orchid, but John admitted it and said they all knew.That’s when I realized I needed to get legal help."

Without checking with the board, she hired a high-priced law firm with attorneys in Washington, D.C., who had expertise in dealing with endangered species cases. Selby’s new attorneys informed federal investigators about Atwood’s possession of the plant. Shortly thereafter a pair of federal investigators showed up at his door and confiscated it.

* * *

The federal investigation exacerbated tensions that already existed among Selby’s board members, and between the board and Lowman. As a result she became its first casualty.

While Lowman was popular among Selby’s wealthy donors, her lack of management experience led to some conflicts. For instance, while the board ultimately ratified her decision to hire $400-an-hour attorneys to deal with the investigation, it still rankled, says board member Caren Lobo, who owns a well-known Sarasota bookstore and newsstand.

Lobo says she was worried that fighting the federal government would bankrupt Selby. She says she urged the board to quickly cut a deal with federal investigators, admitting that "We were excited and we made a mistake, a horrible mistake and we’d like to apologize.” But she says Lowman persuaded the board to hang tough, arguing the staff was innocent.

"We were always hopeful this thing was going to blow away," says former Selby board member Bob Richardson, a past president of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. "It just kept escalating as time went on."

When a federal grand jury began slapping board members and employees with subpoenas, the golden glow of scientific discovery began to fade. Now Selby officials realized they were snared in a lengthy criminal investigation. Attorney fees began to eat away at the gardens’ already tight budget. There was talk of relocating a world-renowned scientific conference to a less controversial site. A crucial federal permit for shipping endangered species to other institutions was suspended. The prospect of a criminal conviction against Selby Gardens itself raised the specter of not only large fines but also the loss of millions in grant money.

As federal investigators tightened the screws, relations among the board members and Lowman worsened. For Richardson, the last straw came in May 2003 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." Scully says he did not mean that Lowman intentionally lied to investigators, just that she may have given them inaccurate information.

Richardson was furious at what he saw as an attempt to make Lowman a scapegoat, and he promptly quit the board. He had once pledged to donate $100,000 to Selby, but now promised to donate the money to Lowman in case she needed it for her own legal expenses.

Not long after, Lowman was ousted by the board. One of the factors, says Lobo, was that board members blamed Lowman for mishandling the investigation. Soon the board members who had supported her were also pushed off the board. They, too, pledged to withhold thousands of dollars in donations.

The Selby brouhaha became a hot topic on a popular online bulletin board for orchid enthusiasts. Some Selby fans compared the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Gestapo. Selby’s critics complained that its staff was guilty of a form of cultural imperialism, allowing white scientists to claim achievements that rightfully belonged to Third World countries.

Sometimes Selby’s own experts, although warned by attorneys to keep mum, jumped into the online forum. In November 2003, Dalstrom defended himself and his colleagues with a mixed sports metaphor: "We may have fumbled with this screw-ball but we did not drop it."

Then came the criminal charges.

* * *

After more than a year of investigation, the Tampa grand jury indicted Kovach on charges of smuggling endangered wildlife and illegal possession of the rare orchid that bore his name. A month later federal prosecutors brought criminal charges against both Higgins and Selby Gardens-the first time any botanical garden in the nation has been charged with a crime.

"It’s apparent to me the government was after the institution, not the individual,” Higgins says with some bitterness. He never even touched the orchid, he says. "People who worked for me handled it, not me, but none of them were charged.It’s clear to the botanical community that they wanted to make an example out of a botanical garden, and Selby was the lucky botanical garden.”

The charges against Selby and Higgins were the result of lengthy negotiations between prosecutors and the Selby board, now chaired by Barbara Hansen, a steely grande dame who was mayor of the Village of Barrington Hills, Ill., for 12 years and describes herself as "a sprightly 76." The board agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a fairly minor penalty.

Selby’s board was under severe financial pressure to make a deal and cut its losses, Scully says. "We were bleeding attorney’s fees,” he says. Lobo estimates they amounted to more than $200,000.

The deal had both Selby and Higgins charged with a misdemeanor violation of the Endangered Species Act. Selby would pay a $5,000 fine, far less than the potential penalty of $100,000.

Selby also agreed to buy a full-page ad in an orchid magazine apologizing for its crime, to change its procedures for how it handles orchids from other countries and to write letters to other scientific institutions encouraging them to make similar changes.

"We don’t want other institutions to make the same mistake," Hansen says. "All institutions are just going to have to be more careful with their paperwork."

Selby also agreed to petition the international scientific body in charge of naming species to withdraw the name Phragmipedium kovachii. "It’s not a good idea to name an orchid after anybody who brought it into the country illegally," Hansen says.

All in all, the consequences could have been far worse. "I suppose you’d say it was a slap on the wrist," Hansen says.

Higgins got more than a slap. He was hit with a $2,000 fine and sentenced to two years of probation, six months of it on house arrest at his Cape Coral home. While he could travel back and forth to Sarasota for his job, he was otherwise confined to his house. No movies. No going to dinner. It was, he says, "inconvenient.”

Kovach didn’t give up so easily. His attorneys argued that he didn’t violate CITES because it doesn’t cover orchids with no name. A judge didn’t buy it. So in June 2004, Kovach pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of illegal trade in endangered species. On Nov. 1, in a wood-paneled courtroom in Tampa, a federal judge sentenced him to two years of probation and a $1,000 fine-a less severe penalty than the one handed to Higgins.

Prosecutors argued for giving Kovach jail time. Although the judge rejected those arguments, he warned Kovach that it had been a close call.

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

At Selby, the international orchid conservation conference went off without a hitch, although Higgins says attendance was not what the gardens had hoped for. So far, Lobo says, there has been no loss of grant money, but the loss of local donors has caused some heartburn. Donations are down a couple of hundred of thousand dollars, says board chair Hansen, but she believes they can now reverse that trend.

"When I took over two years ago, I had great trepidation about whether we could pull this together," says Hansen. "But over the past 18 months, we have turned it around."

More than a year after Lowman’s ouster the board was still searching for a replacement, but Lobo said in December that they hoped to have someone in place by spring.

Although the scandal did nothing to dent attendance at the gardens, in the orchid world Selby’s reputation has been sullied. "There is a reluctance to associate with Selby,” says Paul Martin Brown, editor of the North American Native Orchid Journal and author of several orchid reference books, including The Wild Orchids of Florida.

Still, despite their guilty plea, some Selby officials still insist the gardens’ staff did nothing wrong. It’s up to the government to enforce the endangered species law, Scully says, and not Selby’s scientists. He contends Higgins and his staff did "all the things they were supposed to do.”

"I look at the whole situation as a failure of the government to do its job,” agrees Higgins, who blames the customs inspectors in Miami who never checked Kovach’s bag.

Selby officials did write a letter urging the name of the orchid be changed. But so far the international naming body has taken no action, so the orchid is still officially named for Kovach.

"The general feeling was that the botanists weren’t going to touch this with a 10-foot pole," Christenson says. So many other orchids were named under similar circumstances that "they don’t want to set a precedent."

In Peru, collectors long ago stripped bare the El Progresso site where Kovach’s find first grew. Among the collectors who benefited was Lee Moore, the Adventurer. He says he paid $6 each for 200 of the orchids, in hopes of someday propagating them and selling them legally. But as a result of the Kovach case, he says, the Peruvian government confiscated them all.

And what of the tiny plant that Atwood cultivated in Vermont, the one seized by federal agents? It was turned over to the U.S. Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C., to be held in case it were needed as evidence at trial. As of Kovach’s sentencing, Peru still had not gotten it back.

Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the St. Petersburg Times and won the Waldo Proffitt Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism last year. A native Floridian, he lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and two children.