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In Search of an Orchid as Big as a Plate

Aug 17, 2007
One day, not long ago, I sat at the round table in front of the Yellow Rose, drinking a cold Iquitena with my good friend, Ryan, talking about the many beautiful orchids and epiphytes we have observed in the rainforest near Iquitos, Peru. Ryan nodded his head.

He glanced over his shoulder, leaned toward me, and said in a low voice, "My spies, which are wrong ninety percent of the time, tell me that a new species of orchid has been discovered near Moyobamba the size of a dinner plate."

"Sounds more like the size of a pile of horse manure to me."

"My spies work for INRENA."

"I always wanted to go to Moyobamba."

"They say the weather is perfect every day and every night."

"I think I will go tomorrow."

"You know about the Lacey Act?"

"How can I not know, you lecture me on it once a week!"

"I only want you to be careful and stay out of trouble. This orchid is unknown to science, it is unnamed. You can not touch it, hold it, move it, transport it, or export it. You understand?"

"I understand! I only want to look at it. Smell it's scent, photograph it for posterity. That surely doesn't violate the Lacey Act, does it?"

"Be careful, it's intoxicating."

I spent one day researching and packing. My best friend, Marmelita, and I left the next day for Tarapoto, a quiet, clean, farming community. We found an inexpensive hostel, two blocks from the central plaza, took a motokar to the market and made a meal out of fresh milk, whole grain corn bread, good cheese, fruits, and nuts from the local farms.

My Nikon D-70 camera malfunctioned and the man at the camera repair shop loaned us his digital Canon while he worked on mine. In the afternoon we hired a car to take us up to the High Cascade Waterfalls, a great place to swim and enjoy nature. In the evening we ate delicious, giant, fresh, aqua-farmed Malaysian shrimp and washed it down with a pitcher of mango juice. The next morning my camera was still in pieces so we decided to spend another day in Tarapoto.

Tarapoto is not a bad place for nature lovers. It was near here the English botanist and explorer, Richard Spruce, discovered and named the Platycerium Andinum, or Staghorn Fern. Spruce's specimen died before getting back to England and it was not until 1969 that Lee Moore, the Adventurer, rediscovered the staghorn in the vicinity of Tarapoto and got a live specimen back to civilization.

I fondly remember growing two staghorn ferns in the shower of my bathroom in Indiana, in the 70s, doing my best to recreate the tropical rainforest environment. When I found my first magnificent specimen in the wild rainforest, I realized how pitiful my houseplants had been. This monster circled most of the tree, had fronds hanging down five feet or more, and the 35 shield fronds grew nearly two feet tall. If my house plants had reached their natural potential, there would not have been room for me to have taken a shower.

The next morning my camera still did not work. I purchased the used Canon 3.2 megapixel I had borrowed the day before. Compared to the Nikon at 5 megapixels, with the wonderful lens and all the buttons and functions that I know and love, this was a big loss. With no practice and the manual in Spanish, the odds of getting great photos were about the same as finding an orchid big as a plate.

Moyobamba is the Orchid City, with 2,500 species of orchids growing in the high jungle around the town. Marmelita and I hiked jungle trails, saw hundreds of species in full bloom, soaked in the hot springs, went to more waterfalls, and pursued tips to the nearby villages of Lamas and Rioja. We had a good adventure, accomplished most of what we set out to do, and learned a lot. We learned the truth is rarely heard, seldom seen, and difficult to photograph. The orchid is more the size of a saucer than a plate, but it is one of the most beautiful, rare, and valuable blossoms I have ever laid eyes on. Here is most of its story, woven together from several sources we interviewed in and around Moyobamba. Some of the locations and most of the juicy gossip I am keeping to myself.

A farmer named Faustino Medina set in motion an Indiana Jones style adventure by discovering a large group of pretty flowering plants. He dug some and sold them at a crossroad truck stop called El Progresso, for $1 apiece. An orchid collector from Virginia, like a typical gringo, paid $3.60 for three of them. He can be forgiven for not negotiating the price. He knew they could be worth $10,000 apiece and make him famous. I imagine him running down the road, looking over his shoulder, cradling his three treasures, but an important part of the story is he used Lee Moore's taxi driver, Jose Mendoza. He did not have to run; Mendoza drove him directly to Moore, who confirmed, "You have the Holy Grail of Orchids."

Wild orchids are protected by the international CITES treaty. This orchid was new to science and was unnamed. The catch is that only 23 experts in the world can name an orchid and none of them are in Peru. To gain possession of an unnamed, world-class orchid is hard. To get a legal permit to take the orchid to an official taxonomist is next to impossible. Legend has it that Lee Moore has smuggled most of the things that can be smuggled. His advice was to put it in a suitcase and go straight to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. They are affiliated with five taxonomists, the most of any botanical garden in the world. The collector walked through customs, worked up some papers, and realized his dream by having the lady slipper orchid named after him, Phragmipedium kovachii.

It is ok to build a road and destroy a million orchids. One gets a permit. It is not ok to take an orchid out of the country in a suitcase. That it has been done many times is not a defense, and it was not a defense this time. Federal agents confiscated the plant and charged and convicted the collector and the botanical garden of possession of an endangered species and illegal trade. They paid fines, served probation, and suffered loss of reputation.

At approximately the same time, the taxi driver, Jose Mendoza, raided Faustino Medina's patch, taking every plant, and selling them on the black market to dealers in Ecuador and Lima. Lee Moore has the other two plants left by the collector, and has acquired 200 others that he is raising and propagating for the time when they are legal to export.

Faustino discovered another patch and seems to have sold several hundred for $4 apiece to a rogue with a pickup truck named Kenneth Reategui, who has a small recreational park and restaurant on the outskirts of Tarapoto. He fenced them to an orchid dealer in Lima for what is understood to be a small fortune. An article appeared in the Orchidist, about the last known site of P. kovachii. A thousand mature plants. It was considered to be a safe site because of its inaccessibility, requiring a "hike from hell." Two weeks later a helicopter with cargo boxes swooped in and stole all but two plants too high up on the cliff to reach. Armed men who would not know an orchid from a cactus are fingering the hibiscus.

Intoxicating.

Anyone interested in having an adventure, photographing orchids, touring Tarapoto, Moyobamba and the surrounding countryside, swimming under waterfalls, and soaking in natural hot springs can contact me to arrange the details.
About the Author
Bill Grimes owns and operates Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises, custom cruises on the upper Amazon River and its tributaries from Iquitos, Peru. For details, visit his website at http://www.dawnontheamazon.com
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