Petal Pushers

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

These plants have been submitted for formal evaluation. The judges, and some students learning to judge, break up into groups of five or six, one plant to each group. (Some orchids have been culled at this stage because they didn't deserve further discussion.) Judges pull out plastic rulers and hold them up to different parts of the plants, calling out the measurements in centimeters and tenths of centimeters. A verbal dissection follows. Again, textbooks are referred to, as are past awards photographs and records.

The objects of all this attention are graceful plants. Their beauty is obscured by these dogged efforts to isolate their elements and quantify their aesthetic appeal in terms that will stand up in the record books. As scores are tallied and different aspects of the plants' anatomies are evaluated, it sounds like a bridge game.

A great deal of attention is paid to keeping these manmade standards consistent. They are the currency, the common denominator, of the professional orchid world.

The hand of man may eventually save orchids -- but not necessarily through law enforcement. Hamilton argues that market forces will do the trick. The illegal orchid trade will wither away simply because cultivated orchids, even paphs, are so much more pleasing to people than wild ones. Barnes agrees. "There's no reason for people to be taking them out of the jungle."

Orchid economics favor cultivation, too. Once it has produced greenhouse offspring, a treasured jungle oddity can be reproduced in such volume that it becomes a common hothouse plant.

That's what Barnes and his employer, the Rod McLellan Co., are looking for. Recently, they sold several hundred paphs to Safeway. "That," Barnes adds, "is anathema to keeping the paph mystique alive." McLellan has five species of paphs under cultivation.

As one of the country's largest orchid wholesalers, which counts other orchid nurseries among its customers, McLellan shipped 200,000 orchids last year. Of those, 35,000 were paphs. "If it doesn't bloom in three or four years, we don't want it in the greenhouse," Barnes says.

Even successful intervention by law enforcement authorities can mean they end up killing the plants in trying to save them. Since it's too costly to return them to their countries of origin, most go to U.S. Interior Department-certified "rescue centers." One of the newest is at the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park, which was added last year at the instigation of head curator George Marcopulos.

So far, no paphs have shown up. "Where they are I wish I knew," Marcopulos says of Kolopaking's hoard. "I could restore the collection." For Marcopulos to accept them, he'd have to speed up renovations of his own greenhouse space, since 40 percent of the 12,000 square feet is "unusable." Although the government doesn't pay rescue centers anything, it permits them to propagate from the confiscated specimens. The mother plants remain U.S. government property.

This lopsided approach -- "rescuing" orchids from thieves but having no facilities to care for the plants after retrieval -- underscores collectors' conviction that the government is best left out of the orchid protection business. That belief is grounded partly in hubris; respected collectors have invested years of their lives and significant sums to achieve their status.

The closed society of orchid fanatics promises to pull itself in tighter as the prospect of government censure -- and even jail -- looms for these otherwise law-abiding flower lovers. Still, their passion for the plants abides. Tweezer-toting, self-educated botanists will continue trying to tease out yet another valuable variety; dedicated breeders will continue to pay premiums for rare species, no matter what their source.

Like other underground economies, the orchid trade is abetted by the clannishness of its participants. "If I sneeze in Malibu," Rands says of his orchid brethren, "they'll hear it in New York the next day."

So if federal law enforcement officials do step up CITES enforcement, orchid growers at the highest echelons will be reaching for their handkerchiefs.

And questioning why.

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