Category Archives: Rare plants

A Fragile and Declining Beauty

Phalaenopsis Moth Orchid

Few people think of orchids when they hear of wildlife poaching, but it is a real and all-too-common aspect of a frightening crime. I first stumbled upon this phenomenon years ago, when the movie Adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage, was released. It was loosely based on the fantastic book by Susan Orlean called The Orchid Thief, which depicts the real-life investigation and subsequent arrest of orchid smuggler John Laroche and a group of Seminole Indians from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve area of Florida. Orlean’s book went into a lot of detail about the orchid trade. Endangered species of orchids are protected under the 1973 established Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), as well as the Endangered Species Act in the US. As usual, when there are restrictions but still demands, a black market will flourish. People venture to the areas of earth where the endangered orchids struggle to maintain their populations, most often Asia, South America, Africa, and regions of the tropical US (Florida & Hawaii), rip them from their natural homes, and ship or transport them to buyers often willing to pay thousands of dollars. Not unlike the purveyors of ivory.

The endangered Ghost Orchid, subject of Orlean's book

An interesting article on orchid smuggling from 2010 can be found here: http://www.msmbb.org.my/apjmbb/html181/181ap.pdf

Commercial trade in orchids not considered in danger of disappearing is legal. So is the sale of nursery-propogated species. But as anyone who has fallen under the spell of these magical plants can tell you, sometimes you can’t help but want what you can’t have – the plants sold in Home Depot don’t have the same appeal as a rare, exotic species to an avid collector. Plus, nursery orchids can be expensive and take long periods of time to grow; smugglers often undercut the prices of legitimate growers.

No plant genus or species could hope to illustrate Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection better than orchids. Defying simple description, these fascinating flowers are beautiful, hideous, freakish, arresting, and mysterious. The Orchidaceae is an enormous family of approximately 730 genera and 25,000 species scattered throughout the globe. It is unknown how many species may have existed at one time but are now extinct, and there currently may well be close to 100,000 more hybrid varieties created by cross-breeding different species (Leroy-Terquem, et al, 9). They range in size from microscopic to enormous plants with flowers stretching to over one foot in diameter. There are some that resemble faces: old men with fu Manchu moustaches, shriveled elderly women, and young children with expressions caught in a permanent state of surprise. Others look like dark, cloaked vampires, fangs curled and poised to bite; there is even a genus aptly named Dracula, which looks remarkably like the frightening mythological persona, complete with that familiar sinister expression.  

Dracula gigas (photo by Mauro Rosim)

Animal-like creatures come to life in orchids, like lions with an orange mane of petals, or monkeys with arms outstretched, or bright swallowtail butterflies. There are orchids that resemble high-heeled shoes and fluffy hats. Some seem to be monsters frozen forever in a silent scream; others look like tiny spiders or creeping ladybugs. A few species are parasitic in nature but most are epiphytic, anchoring themselves to trees or rocks but obtaining their nutrients from other sources. There are orchids that possess smells reminiscent of lemonade, angel-food cake, and expensive French perfume, while there are others whose smells resemble a garbage heap or in the worst cases, rotting flesh. Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid?

Vanilla orchid (photo by orchidsflowers.net)

I’ve had a love affair with orchids for many years, and have had sporadic success with different varieties. But although I admire the rare and exotic, I do so from the pages of books or online. Or purchase from legitimate growers. I’ve often bought the sad-looking Home Depot orchids because I feel sorry for them and want to give them a better home, and guess what? They grew just fine. Please don’t support the exotic pet or plant trade. Leave them where they are supposed to be so that they don’t disappear forever.

Paphiopedilum from my own collection :)