Blooming Mad

March 2003
People;3/10/2003, Vol. 59 Issue 9, p142
He's been called thief, smuggler, evil, pariah. And all because some people believe James Kovach stole a flower. Okay, so it's not just any flower. It's "the most spectacular orchid of the last 100 years," says John Beckner of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a key player in this seedy saga. It began in May 2002, when Kovach, 47, owner of a tiny greenhouse in Goldvein, Va., went flower shopping with wife Barbara, 49, in Moyobamba, Peru, known as Orchid City. At a roadside stand he bought a foot-tall magenta flower for about $3. "We didn't quite know what it was," he says, "but we were pretty sure we found something special." Kovach brought it back to the U.S. and took it to Selby Gardens, a premier botanical society in Sarasota, Fla. "Everybody said, 'Wow,'" recalls curator Beckner, who identified it as a new and dramatically larger species of orchid, published a paper naming it Phragmipedium kovachii--a coup for a small breeder like Kovach--and returned it to a museum in Peru. Kovach failed to get the necessary permit and may have violated a law designed to stop orchid smuggling: A single kovachii could fetch $20,000 on the black market and millions more if bred. In August of that same year, six investigators from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency seized tax records and plants from Kovach's home. He remains under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office, and his income from breeding and lecturing has dried up like a wilted you-know-what.


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