Some 400 years ago, in a time of fraught international politics and a sharp division between the haves and have-nots in the little country of Holland, a beautiful flowering plant named Semper augustus took Dutch society by storm. Only a dozen-odd specimens of the exotic thing had arrived in the country by way of the spice trade, and the wealthy Amsterdam merchant who owned them quickly found an avid market, selling each one for twice the price that Rembrandt would earn for his contemporary painting The Night Watch.
The equivalent of a million smackers for a tulip? Stranger things have happened in this world, but not many.
The fad passed long ago, but the story of Holland's tulipmania remains a staple of economics textbooks as an early example of the kind of bubbles that we've recently endured in the housing and high-tech markets. In the context of Tampa Bay Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman's latest book, The Scent of Scandal, it stands simply for what it is: proof of the crazy things people will do when it comes to flowers.
Think of the dotty aunt obsessed by roses, if you have one in your family, or perhaps your pop, forever amending the soil in the garden bed to bring up the perfect crocus. On a shadier note, think of the cactus rustlers who smuggle night-blooming cereus out of the desert to greenhouses in, of all places, New York and Paris.
Or think of the cautionary tale that Pittman, an eminently skilled reporter and storyteller, serves up, which is full of craziness all on its own. It's all about obsession — in this instance, with orchids, the creepy-to-some parasitic things that have been the be-all and end-all of many a botanical collection, including Sarasota's prized Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
Devoted to science and beauty alike, those gardens occupy a prime spot in one of the country's most superbly scenic settings. To look at the place, you'd expect it to be a bastion of decorum and civilization — but that's not quite so. For, a decade ago, when a smart field biologist came on as the new executive director, some ugly institutional politics began to play out. The new director brought in big grants and good press, but in her insistence that the Selby focus on ecology and conservation, she lost some of the old-timer growers and collectors whose personal encyclopedias contained only the volume marked "O" for orchids.
And, yes, "O" for obsession. Amid the dissent and intrigue, enter one notable plant collector who had gotten a lead on a Peruvian orchid of a kind never before described scientifically and beautiful enough to drive an enthusiast mad. To get it out of South America legally, he had to — well, to put it politely, he had to forget he ever knew anything about strict laws about the importation of exotic species into the United States.
Enter as well a few players at the Selby, who, knowingly or not, acted as enablers and abettors in finding Phragmipedium kovachii — a name that is now being contested, for reasons that Pittman makes plain — a new home in this country.
Pittman tracks down and talks with collectors, growers, scientists, speculators, plant cops, all of whom play a role in the complex, often surprising story that unfolds.
It would be spoiling Pittman's carefully crafted tale to give too much of it away, except to remark that the case of Phragmipedium kovachii has proved to be a kind of King Tut's curse of the plant kingdom. The delicate flower has ruined careers, brought a noble institution into disrepute, threatened to put a few folks into the slammer and cost many a dollar, most of it going into the hands of lawyers. And that's just at the Selby.
But the orchid business goes on. As Pittman writes, the commerce adds up to a staggering $44 billion a year worldwide, $23 million in Florida alone. That's the licit, known trade. He adds, "On the illegal side, no one knows how much money black-market orchids are worth."
What we do know is that that little Peruvian slipper orchid has now become a hot item, even winning best in show at a recent competition in Wisconsin. We also know, thanks to Pittman's story, as carefully plotted as a police procedural, that it continues to be smuggled out of Peru, so much so that the small wild population stands in danger of being plucked to extinction. The flower is being grown in greenhouses as far afield as Taiwan, Canada and, yes, Holland.
Ironically, as bubbles will, all that cultivation and commerce have driven the price of the slipper orchid down; you can pick one up for far less than the price of a Rembrandt. But Pittman's book will hold its value for years to come as an in-depth portrait of a weird, sometimes dangerous mania.
Gregory McNamee writes about geography, animal welfare and many other topics for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His most recent book is "Aelian's On the Nature of Animals" (Trinity University Press).