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Greed, Betrayal, and the World's Most Beautiful Orchid

by Craig Pittman

Pub Date: April 5th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8130-3974-9
Publisher: Univ. Press of Florida

An excruciatingly detailed account of the 2002 controversy that rocked Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Fla., when its scientists were asked to identify an orchid of dubious origin.

St. Petersburg Times writer Pittman's (Manatee Insanity: Inside the War over Florida's Most Famous Endangered Species, 2010, etc.) zeal for his subject is admirable, but his enthusiasm is unlikely to be shared by many of his readers. Was Michael Kovach a simple orchid collector who, by removing a rare new species of orchid from its native Peru and bringing it back to the United States, unwittingly violated the law? Or was he a greedy, scheming orchid smuggler, well aware of the illegality of his actions? Such questions are intriguing at first, but the book begins to drag as the reader discovers how little is actually at stake: Kovach will either be sentenced to jail but not serve any time, or he'll simply have to pay a small fine. The executive director of the Gardens will either keep her job or be fired. People's professional reputations will suffer, they'll lose money and they'll be otherwise inconvenienced. But after expectations of explosive, life-or-death drama, such mundane reversals feel anticlimactic. However, Pittman's background as a reporter mostly serves him well; he is adept at foregrounding the most pertinent details of a story that involves conflicting accounts and years of complex litigation, and the narrative moves along swiftly. In other ways, though, his journalistic instincts are a liability. The book often feels choppy and rushed, as if it were written on a tight deadline, and Pittman has a penchant for hackneyed phrases (“the big pay-off…that would put you on Easy Street”) and heavy-handed foreshadowing (“She believed she had climbed to the pinnacle of success. Actually, she was standing on a precipice”).

Though exhaustively researched, the book is not compelling enough to hold the interest of anyone who does not have a personal connection to the material. Read Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever (2000) instead.