Keys Homes
Sunday, December 16, 2012
Craig Pitman: The Scent of Scandal, a book about orchids

By ROBIN ROBINSON The Key West Garden Club

There aren't many books that can be classified under Mystery/Crime and Gardening, but Craig Pitman's new non-fiction book , "The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World's Most Beautiful Orchid" fits both of those categories.

Pitman, who is an environmental reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, followed the orchid story through all of its twists and turns and finally to the criminal court system.

Orchids are the largest family in the plant kingdom. Both Confucius and Darwin were orchid lovers. Darwin intended to include a chapter in his Origin of the Species about orchids, but decided he had too many pages to include them in the first book and decided to publish the orchid book separately. It had 340 pages.

Orchids attract fanatics who are obsessed with owning the best or most expensive or most unusual. Once a collector starts, there is a never ending variety to possess. Keys affectionado Gary Gethen moved 800 of his orchids when he left town this year.

Orchids are found high in the treetops in the jungles of South America where they get torrents of rain followed by humid breezes that dry the roots. Because they are located in isolated, small pockets, there are many varieties.

To supply the obsessive collectors, swashbuckling characters ramble through Peruvian and Ecuadorian jungles, buying orchids from locals or collecting specimens themselves. When they find an unusual variety, they strip the jungle bare of every saleable plant. Not an ecologically sustained situation.

It is easy to bribe an official and smuggle them out of South America and it is easy to get them into this country through the smuggler's favorite entrance point, the Miami airport. Miami's inspectors are overwhelmed and understaffed so much contraband gets through.

"The Adventurer," Lee Moore is one such character. He met Michael Kovach, the main character in Pitman's book, on a plane or maybe not in this tortured tale. Awed by the three species of orchids named after Moore, Kovach couldn't get enough of him. All Kovach wanted to do was to get an orchid named after himself so he could be famous. Eventually, Moore invited Kovach to visit Peru with him and to go orchid hunting.

After arriving, Moore gave Kovach his car and driver and sent him up the road to check out a farmer's stock. It was there that Kovach found and bought the incredible "Raspberry Fireworks" orchid from a farmer for $3.60. The slipper orchid flower is huge and incredibly beautiful. Kovach smuggled it back into the country and took it to Selby Gardens where they named it Phragmipedium kovachii after him. At last, an orchid with Kovach's name on it.

Soon the orchid was selling on the black market for $10,000. That is when the government of Peru ask for its plant back from the U.S. government. There was a Federal Grand Jury investigation.

Then began the battle to change the name of the orchid, depriving Kovach of his sole goal. Ultimately, the committee in charge of naming plants was ordered to "confine itself to plant nomenclature rather than moral judgements."

People dreamed of getting rich or famous from this orchid, but more often it brought them grief. Soon, people called it cursed.

The Scent of Scandal: GREED Betrayal and the world's Most Beautiful Orchid is an easy and enjoyable read. The reader will find out why life is a mystery.


Attention Gardeners! Red wiggler worms are available from entrepreneur 10-year-old Shiloh Arnold at 5 for a dollar. Call (305) 296-9674 to help out his college fund.

Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit

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