Orchidelirium: The Flower Fever Is Still Lurking in the Swamp by Lois Bolin

Off in a distant part of the house, I heard a news reporter state that the ghost orchid may get protection under the Endangered Species Act. Wait-what? Isn’t it already protected?

Did you know that Florida’s most famous native orchids is the ghost orchid? Today there are allegedly 603 – 1500 reproductively mature ghost orchids left in places such as Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and Big Cypress National Preserve. While Florida has already declared the orchid endangered, a federal designation would add increased protections and create stronger penalties in the case of poaching.

Well, why not get the government involved in a local issue – an issue that was addresses in 1993 in the nonfiction book The Orchid Thief.

Delirium is defined as a serious change in mental abilities resulting in confused thinking and a lack of awareness of someone’s surroundings. The disorder usually comes on fast within hours or a few days-or when seeing rare orchids.

Europeans had cultivated orchids on a small scale since the 1700s, with their popularity blossoming in the 1800s as wealthy orchid collectors employed hunters to travel the world, especially the tropics, in search of rare species.

The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned the collection of wild orchids in 1973. But people continue to poach and smuggle. Orchidelirium still exists to some extent today although the past expected perils, where orchid hunters risk their lives for flowers, won’t be seen at your local garden shows – or will they?

The Orchid Thief
Orchids have long been the subject of intense scientific interest and at times, emotional obsession. “When a man falls in love with orchids, he’ll do anything to possess the one he wants. It’s like chasing a green-eyed woman or taking cocaine. . . it’s a sort of madness,” proclaims an orchid hunter in Susan Orlean’s bestselling book The Orchid Thief. This level of devotion has inspired significant investment in the flower throughout history, even motivating scientific breakthroughs that have made the once elusive bloom plentiful and affordable enough for the everyday person.

Perhaps the most well-known modern orchid fanatic is an American horticulturist named John Laroche. In 1993 he poached 136 orchids including the rare ghost orchid, filling several garbage bags and pillowcases* from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve with the help of Seminole tribe members. He claimed he only did it to clone and cultivate endangered species.

Ultimately, as Mr. Laroche saw it, he would saturate the black market and loosen its grip on these rare and delicate commodities. He said, “I researched the law and realized that it was vague about the Indians taking things out of state preserves. This law ought to be changed, but in the meantime, someone’s going to get the benefit of the law being the way it is now, and I figure it might as well be me.”

Mr. Laroche paid a fine, and his two Seminole accomplices (who were technically his employers) pleaded no contest and were released as the government wanted to end the trial sooner rather than later, as issues involving the Seminole Indians and the Everglades tended to be quite sensitive. The worst penalty Mr. Laroche had to pay, however, was the probation that prohibited him from visiting his beloved Fakahatchee Strand for six months. Mr. Laroche, who has since changed his last name due to threats, had both won and lost: He had found a loophole in the law, but lost the case; found the orchids, but lost the right to keep them; and found himself famous but slightly disgraced.

What If ?
In the movie, Catch Me If You Can, is allegedly a true story of the world’s most sought-after con man, immortalized by Leonardo DiCaprio. Frank Abagnale was released from prison after five years on the condition that he help the government develop check fraud prevention programs. Quite the skill set.

Ms. Orleans interviewed one of only six people in the entire country (at that time) who knew how to propagate the ghost orchid in a plant laboratory. I can’t help but wonder… what if Laroche was given the grace and a title of “ghost buster” and allowed to propagate ghost orchids for the Fakahatchee Strand to
sell and deter those nasty poachers. What if?

(* There is no truth to the rumor that those pillowcases were from Mr. Pillow Guy.)

FEATURED PHOTO: Lois Bolin, Ph.D., Old Naples Historian

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