The Scent of a Scandal

Here is the premise of this book: a true crime story about orchids. I had to read this book. In the family orchidacae there are approximately 25,000 to 30,000 different species. There are approximately 100,000 hybrid versions of these flowers. The industry is worth an estimated $44 billion per year with an extensive black market trade despite world wide trade tariffs. I will admit I do not know much about these flowers, but  I think they are a very pretty flower. Apparently some people believe they are more than just a beautiful flower and are obsessed with them to the point of committing criminal acts.

Outside of Sarasota, Florida is a small botanic garden known as the Marie Selby Botanic Garden. Not one of the larger botanic gardens in the world, it had carved out a niche for itself as a orchid specialist garden. The garden included research facilities for the study and propagation of orchids, although this was not its only stated mission. The garden was started in 1971 when Marie Selby died and left her house and $2,000,000 for maintenance of the house as a botanical garden. A local doctor who was on the board pushed for the emphasis on orchids as they were his favorite flowers. In 2002, the garden was being run by a woman named Meg Lowman. She had a botany PhD., and her real interest was research in the rain forest canopy. She had no experience running a garden but was apparently a whiz at soliciting donations. The scientists on staff did not agree with her style and wanted to change the focus even though the garden was flourishing.
In 2002 the Redland International Orchid Festival was held outside of Miami. It is the largest orchid show in the world. One of the vendors had a plant from Peru for sale that was being hawked for $10,000. The scientists were very interested. After the show one of the scientists received a picture of an orchid he had never seen before. He realized it had been at the show, was a new species and assumed someone else had started to classify the plant. The way the taxonomy works with orchids is that once the name is cataloged and then published the name sticks. In 2002 the American Orchid Society had just 23 approved taxonomists available. 7 of them worked at Selby.
In order to classify a plant you must have the plant. In order to get the plant out of the country of origin, the plant must have a name. And the plant must have a permit to be both exported and imported. This is all governed by international law. Sometimes it is also covered by the FDA , the US Customs Service and the USDA. Everyone can have their say. Rarely is anyone ever prosecuted for smuggling an orchid. Usually the plant is confiscated and sent to a garden to be warehoused while someone, somewhere decides what to do with it. Not so in this case.
The taxonomy for the orchid was done at Selby and published. The garden thinks everything is in order but soon comes to realize that this is not the case. There are no permits for this orchid,  even though the man who brought the orchid into the US said her had the proper permits. The US attorney gets involved as does the government of Peru, who not only wants its orchid back but wants to change the name so it reflects the country of origin.  The investigation starts and the lawsuits begin.
I found this book fascinating. Not the dry legal case it sounds like, the book is filled with myriad characters - some savory; some not so much. There is so much information packed into this book about international treaties, the US attorney's office and just plain odd characters I could not put the book down. A short read, this book will be an interesting way to start the growing season.

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