The beauty of the orchid is astonishing and the variety dizzying, with about 30,000 species. Although finding any new orchid species provides reason to uncork the champagne, discovery of the Phragmipedium kovachii, writes Craig Pittman in his new book of nonfiction, "The Scent of Scandal," was "the most glorious orchid find in a century," valued by some at $10,000. Still, there was something sinister about this new species. One orchid dealer called it the "kovachii curse."
Pittman, a newspaper reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, reports this engaging saga of orchidophiles -- botanists, scientists and hobbyists -- as the then-unnamed kovachii orchid is smuggled from Peru to Florida in 2002. First, there's a race to describe and name a new orchid species. Pittman writes: "Among some orchidophiles, there is a drive to own the best, the most exotic, the rarest orchid in the world, even if it means breaking the law." Those involved in the smuggling include Selby Gardens, a botanical garden in Florida; Michael Kovach, a collector and smuggler; and a sinister fellow called the Adventurer. A huge cast of supporting characters -- including cops and lawyers -- builds the suspense of Pittman's intriguing account, which includes a multi-year investigation, a handful of court cases and a plagued aftermath.
Pittman portrays Kovach, the Adventurer, Selby's staff and others as backstabbers who out of greed, jealousy, fear or egotism take sides and turn against each other. Two of the principals even planned to do reality TV shows about orchids. There's also courtroom drama and a mysterious death that may have been suicide, accident or murder. What more could you ask for?