Petal Pushers

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

"Your front door" to the rain forest "gets further and further in," he says. "You find things that people weren't able to get in to. They're discovering [animal and plant life] in China and Vietnam that they previously thought were gone." The same thing is happening in South America.

But, says Florida orchid expert John Atwood, "Orchids are not jaguars. They produce an awful lot of seeds," upward of 15,000 -- millions, in some cases -- the size of dustmotes. "They can blow three or four miles away. We think of them as rare plants, but it's just that we can't find them. I'm afraid what population biologists are seeing" -- when they declare paphs forced out of their habitats -- "is the tail end."

A species can be saved by someone with the lowest of motives. That's what happened to one of the most prized paphs, the paphiopedilum rothschildianum. One poacher stripped a colony bare before the habitat was destroyed. He was convicted in the British courts, but enough plants had made it into collectors' hands for the species to continue.

"Is he a hero?" Atwood asks. "I won't say he is, but there are problems with conservation measures."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hochman disagrees with the orchid collectors. "These governments may not have a lot of money for the enforcement of their laws," Hochman says, "but they're very intense in their beliefs" against the commercial exploitation of wild orchids. "The owner of a [wild] Indonesian orchid is the Indonesian government."

True salvaging "comes down to getting permission from the country of origin," says the USDA's Torbett. "Granted, there aren't many countries that have the expertise, but it's up to them to determine whether those plants will leave their country."

A few orchid fanciers like Hamilton and the San Francisco Orchid Society are independently exporting their expertise to the Third World. Last November, Hamilton and three other people delivered to Ecuador the machinery needed to sustain the clean-room conditions that orchid propagation requires.

Hamilton remains skeptical about the ultimate value of his efforts, however. "A number of us feel the best place to preserve orchids is ex situ" -- that is, outside their native territory. Third World populations are simply growing so quickly that it's "hard to preserve land" for wild flowers.

Preservation may be the goal of some members of the orchid community, but for others the mere desire to own an endangered plant drives them to obsession. These are the "junkies." They can be found at all levels of the collecting hierarchy.

There aren't many junkie stares among the 70 to 80 people attending a recent monthly meeting of the California Orchid Society at Oakland's Lakeside Park Garden Center, near Fairyland on Lake Merritt. They look like hobbyists, model railroaders maybe. Their nondescript clothes -- functional jeans, slacks, sweaters and windbreakers -- contrast with the elegant orchids they carry in from their vans and station wagons. Interestingly, many of the smaller specimens are on sale for less than $10.

Although the ranks of local orchid fanciers include at least one retired industrialist and others supporting what can be a costly habit, the people on this night in January have the pasty look and modest demeanor of librarians. They interact quietly. The only flamboyance present is in the blossoms and shapes of the plants. After all, a true orchid breeder spends hours each day alone with his charges, studying their most minute variations. There's a sense that most would prefer the company of mute green things.

Orchids give them a common language. Abbreviated versions of Latin names -- paphs and "phrags," or phragmipediums -- are tossed around. An outsider soon learns to stop trying to puzzle out their meaning and use them like the slang they are.

OrchidMania's Thompson once explained how he and others "got hooked because someone gave us [an orchid] when it was in bloom. Then all the flowers fell off and we ran out and got another one and soon we were addicted."

It's not as simple as it sounds, though. From the more common types of orchids, true "addicts" soon graduate to increasingly sophisticated plants, ones that may be harder to grow -- or harder to find. One-upmanship is rampant, though usually polite.

The crowd at the Garden Center is almost completely white, with a few Asian and black faces, and tends toward middle age. Men outnumber women by about two to one. One member figures it's probably the oldest orchid society in the state because it was able to claim "California" in its title.

About an hour before the 8 pm start of the business meeting, 25 to 30 people have gathered in the judging room, just around the corner from the main hall and about 30 feet square. Off to the side, a camera on a tripod points at a small, chest-high platform positioned between two floor lamps, a ready-made portrait studio for any deserving plants. Boxes of index cards are stacked on a shelf, and a folding table is strewn with bound back issues of orchid magazines. A few botany texts and reference books are also to hand. The volumes are regularly consulted by different people as they inspect the 10 orchids, each with a number draped around it, sitting on a table. Six, it turns out, are paphs, with their telltale pouches and bat-wing petals. (Paphs tend to bloom at this time of year.)

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