Petal Pushers

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

"If I were forced to grow one genus, I'd grow paphs," says cultivator Mike Serpa.

But for business reasons, Serpa raises many different genera. On a recent Thursday in the selling area of his nursery, there were a number of paphs in bloom on the benches. The paph pouches, about the size of a large thimble, were purple, the petals streaked with different hues of deeper purple and their leaves spotted.

Serpa is intrigued by paphs mostly because of the hybrids they produce: "You can cross a lot of cattleyas [the most common orchid] together and they're all cattleyas. But you can do paphiopedilums and something totally different in shape and everything can come out."

Breeding paphs is painstaking and slow. "Each one is individual," Serpa says. "Once it flowers, it's a long ways away from having even a division of that plant to sell. So the prices go sky high. That's the economic reason. Also, they grab people. There's a fascination for paphiopedilums. I don't believe that this whole business [of black-market orchids] would happen with very many other orchids."

Orchid growing is only the most recent of the 53-year-old Serpa's careers. The former owner of a welding and metal-fabricating business, he did much of the construction work on his 4,000-square-feet greenhouse in Alameda himself. He claims to have acquired many of his thousands of floral holdings through barter and breeding and boasts of never having spent more than $100 for a plant. Serpa opens his greenhouse to the public four days a week, greeting visitors in faded jeans and worn shirt. One day in January, over the course of a couple of hours, the only customers who visit are a middle-aged couple from Alameda bearing two orchids they're worried about. Serpa gives them some advice, reassurance and praise and sends them on their way -- without making a sale.

Serpa started buying tropical orchids in 1977, mostly from the Philippines. "It was reasonably inexpensive when you bought a paphiopedilum that was jungle-collected," he says. "Then, prices went up and the size went down. The ban came along and it became very difficult to get anything."

Now, "to be in really top form for a paph collection, you have to spend $500 or $600 at a time and go on from there," as hardcore collectors strive to own "that one single plant that no one else has." Serpa will "splurge once in a while and buy a flask of something." (Seedlings are grown in sterile flasks before being placed in pots.) His paphs sell from $10 to $50 or $250 or more for a particularly prized "stud" -- a reliable breeding stock.

The Kolopaking case inspired a lengthy feature article in the January 8 Chronicle "Sunday" section, headlined "Black market orchids: A global underground smuggling network may drive rare species into extinction."

Reporter Jim Doyle described "the dark side of horticulture," peopled by "orchid hunters" who "hopscotch the globe" and deliver smuggled plants to hobbyists who openly display them at flower shows. "Greedy" collectors are the cause for orchids' extinction in the wild, according to the law enforcement authorities quoted by Doyle.

Also according to Doyle, smuggled plants undercut the prices of those grown in the nursery. Dedicated fanciers scoff at greenhouse plants, he wrote, because their blooms are predictable, and "that's boring."

Serpa calls the extinction-by-overcollection thesis "bullshit." Habitat destruction caused by development, not overcollecting, is what's really killing orchids, he says.

Robert Hamilton, a horticulturist at UC Berkeley and a California Orchid Society member, agrees. The only collecting that poses a measurable problem is when locals take quantities of them for their own use. "Most decorative orchids are stripped from the rain forest for [local celebrations like] Christmas festivals and thrown away" after their flowers fade, Hamilton reports.

Doyle's story also ignored the issue of Western conservationist ideology at play in the Third World.

"What CITES has done for elephants and crocodiles in the Nile is great," says OrchidMania's Thompson. "For orchids, it's the exact opposite."

Having rendered many wild orchids an "illegitimate commodity," the CITES strictures remove the incentive for anyone to save orchids trampled by new logging and development.

Although CITES makes provisions for salvage, no country has established a legitimate collection/salvage program where plants would be removed from threatened habitats and nurtured in greenhouses.

Thompson emphasizes the irony: Native collectors are prohibited from sending an orchid out of the country to someone who will help it breed, but loggers and road builders are free to torch the orchid-sustaining forests.

That leaves orchid preservation to freelancers -- which is how Rands views himself -- or outlaws, which is the way law enforcement authorities characterize Kolopaking. Rands argues that by the time wild orchids are accessible enough to be gathered, their habitat is already seriously endangered.

"It's not like you send a guy into the jungle with a sack and a machete," Rands says. Collectors come in only after roads have been bulldozed and fields cleared. The ensuing pesticides, erosion and air pollution are enough to finish off any remaining orchids.

Oddly enough, orchid collectors and other rare plant and animal enthusiasts benefit from the destruction of habitat, Serpa points out.

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