"The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World's Most Beautiful Orchid"

September 15, 2012

Book Shelf


The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World's Most Beautiful Orchid

By Craig Pittman
University Press of Florida, $24.95

Reviewed by JoAnn M. Valenti

After documenting tales in his first two books of his home state’s endangered wetlands (Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss) and its threatened, iconic manatees (Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species), Craig Pittman of the Tampa Bay Times (formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times) turned his attention to a flower.

Not one of Florida’s native flowers, mind you. Phragmipedium kovachii, more commonly known as p.k., is a recently discovered, endangered orchid from Peru.

And there’s the catch: What’s this gorgeous, humongous orchid doing in the United States, by way of Miami’s notorious international airport inspection, and why is it named after some hippie from Virginia?

In The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid, Pittman tackles the mystery of how a single flower (or was it only one?) brought an elite Sarasota-based botanical garden to near ruin, a scientist to federal prison, and a cast of some 45 characters plus renowned Miami Herald garden reporter Georgia Tasker (along with journalists at The New York Times, People magazine, PBS’s NOVA and other media) into a lengthy battle to discover truth.

I am not normally a mystery story reader. But I do like the board game Clue, and that’s about the closest I can come to preparing you for this complex, incredibly detailed read. Be advised to dog-ear, or gross out book lovers and rip out the “cast of characters” page, a single two-sided page of names and identifications, as you try to follow this whodunit. Much to his credit, Pittman provides 43 pages of sources. That’s right, 43 pages from individuals to government and court reports, FOIA documents, media and beyond. The source list alone is worth the purchase for students trying to learn how to research a story.

The perpetrators come from Wisconsin, New York, Vermont, Virginia, California, Hawaii, Texas, Canada, Ecuador, Peru, Sweden and, of course, Florida, including a staff of orchid specialists at the now scandalized Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota. Even the country-club boys have a hard time playing through this mess.

Pittman is a master of capturing personalities in visual descriptions and self-revealing quotes. The book includes black & white photos of most of the prime suspects. But the only real picture one gets of the star is on the book’s cover, thankfully, in color.

This is a story that screams for more photos of this amazing flower that’s driven some to suicide (or was it murder?) and others to abandon their passion for orchids entirely. Clearly, not everyone knows or cares much about the intricacies of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Indeed, some orchid aficionados would like to see the demise of CITES, arguing that orchids, like recreational drugs, have been forced into the black market.

Having worked for more than a decade with botanists at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii and Florida, I’ve seen the pride and esteem that come to those who discover new species and have a plant carry one’s name forever. Most are dedicated researchers, hard at work to protect the planet. Yet, conflicts between ego and expertise, science and the law are not new in the botanical world.

Pittman manages to capture this real case history where others have tried and not yet succeeded.

JoAnn Valenti, emerita professor and SEJournal Editorial Board member, loves a spot-on exposé, especially when it nurtures Mother Nature and nips greed in the bud.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2012. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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