Petal Pushers

Orchid collectors, watch your back. Uncle Sam knows what you're up to.

"Figure that one in every seven plants that occur in nature is an orchid," explains George Marcopulos, who heads San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Of the 600 or so different orchid genera, paphs are the strangest, most alluring and potentially most costly. Their value is enhanced because they are the only orchid genus to resist tissue culture, the technology that makes it easy to mass-produce plants.

"Orchid hobbyists tend to be wealthy and better educated," sniffed one law enforcement official, who asked to remain nameless. Celebrity orchid fanciers include the late Raymond Burr, who owned an orchid ranch in Fiji called the Sleeping Giant.

"I'm sure a lot of very wealthy people bought orchids from my client," says Kolopaking attorney Tucker.

Collectors lust after a contraband orchid for the same reasons connoisseurs seek a forbidden manmade masterpiece, according to prosecutor Hochman: "For its beauty, its rarity, its endangeredness." But it's a pleasure that can't be shared. "You can't show a black-market painting in your house," Hochman says, completing the analogy.

"Collectors are paying for the illegality," Barnes says, alluding to the Kolopaking affair. As the laws get tougher, the value of the illegal orchids will rise. "Look at the price of homegrown marijuana in California," he says. Ounce for ounce, Kolopaking's plants fetched nearly $400 an ounce -- close to the price of quality pot.

The price of pot is a function of measurable potency and supply; determining the price of orchids is more complicated. Aesthetic considerations as well as scarcity play a role, as does the sophistication of the collector. Undocumented claims of "new" or re-discovered species make fraud easier because, in most cases, the plants in question aren't yet in bloom. Buyers might not know what they've purchased for years until the orchid finally flowers.

A class of unscrupulous traders -- orchid cowboys -- has risen to service this gray-to-black market. Serpa tells a few tales about the cowboys of the outlaw paph trade, though he declines to name them publicly. But with the conviction of Kolopaking, Serpa gladly recounts a few stories about the Indonesian family.

Like most well-connected paph fanciers, Serpa knew of the orchid trader for decades, first doing business with him when the elder Kolopaking still used his given Chinese name, Liem Khe Wie. (He later changed it to Kolopaking to comply with Indonesian law.)

"He was notoriously dishonest," Serpa says with a shrug about the older man. "It's part of the culture. They don't look at it the same way we do. [Harto] Kolopaking probably wonders what the hell he's doing [being sen>tenced to] jail."

Back when the elder Kolopaking's wild-plant shipments were legal, they'd be sprinkled with duds -- allegedly new species that were really genetic quirks and that weren't taxonomically unique, as well as purportedly "natural" hybrids that looked like they'd been helped along by the cultivator.

Neither Serpa nor Barnes was surprised that Kolopaking was trading in illegal jungle plants. Barnes visited the family nurseries in East Java in 1988 and saw numerous specimens that would be forbidden a year later.

"The CITES ban took everybody by surprise," says Barnes. "He had 400 or 500 ... huge plants, 14 blooms per plant." Kolopaking was asking $150 for each, reasonable by U.S. standards, but "30 to 40 times what the plants cost him." Barnes doubts Kolopaking could have sold them all locally: "There's not a lot of people in Java who can afford $150." Barnes guesses that the plants found their way to overseas customers, one way or another.

As much as Serpa dislikes the Kolopakings, he scoffs at the idea that this conviction will deter the illegal orchid trade. Harto Kolopaking's just a token, Serpa claims. "The Japanese are the ones who make this thing happen. They do not care about habitats. They do not give a shit. They are circumventing this process very easily by finding other corrupt people like the Taiwanese. They work it."

Taiwan, which has not signed CITES, has become the collecting point for many of the orchids traded in Asia, legally or not.

Despite the difficulties in propagation, paphs have been cultivated in the West longer than any other orchids, dating back to 1823. Around the turn of the century, tastes in paphs shifted and "novelty" paphs, such as the ones Kolopaking was trading, became more popular.

These orchids are living symbols of Western empire: Paphs from European colonies in Asia, the Americas and Africa were transported to private conservatories in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Rome, where they were dubbed with such names as "Rothschildianum," "Mr. Fairrie of Liverpool" and "Mr. Spicer, a tea planter," as noted in Timber Press' Dictionary of Plant Names (1987).

Today, there is even one paph honoring the Kolopakings, paphiopedilum kolopakingii.

Paphs exert a sensual pull.
"They're almost animal," says John Atwood, an orchid expert for the Selby Arboretum in Sarasota, Florida, who advises the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They are statuesque; they have a personality." When Atwood was a boy he bought his first orchid -- a paph -- and sold his bike to pay for it.

"Some [of the paphs] are really bizarre," says Tim Torbett, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector at the San Francisco airport. (San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles are the only California ports through which CITES materials may be shipped.) "They look like they're made of plastic, not something that would be mass-marketed."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.