December 3, 2022


Law & Orchid

Botanist Meg Lowman rebounds from a furor over a flower.

Gina Edwards | 12/1/2004
Even in her cramped and musty professor's office in the historic Caples Carriage house at Sarasota's New College, the rainforest surrounds botanist Meg Lowman.

A slice of tree trunk leans against one wall, its rings exposed for examination. Massive cicadas and horned beetles mounted in a shadow box rest on the windowsill. Even the ring tone on Lowman's cell phone warbles a tropical symphony of buzzing, chirping and exotic bird cackles.

More than a year after the board of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota fired Lowman in the ugly aftermath of an international orchid smuggling scandal, Lowman is organizing lectures, finishing another book and doing what she's always done: Campaigning for plants. "I strongly feel that we owe it to the next generation to create good stewardship of plants and our ecosystems," Lowman says.

In the world of field botany, women are rare. Celebrities are even rarer. Lowman made her name using ropes and pulleys to hoist herself tens of stories into rainforest canopies to study the likes of foliage and insect poop. Her 1999 memoir, "Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Field Biology," scored front cover play in the New York Times Book Review. And in June 2002, at the helm of the renowned Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Lowman was flying high professionally, keeping a busy travel and research schedule to evangelize for rainforest conservation.

To understand Lowman's undoing at Selby requires understanding the passions and even lunacies provoked by orchids. Susan Orlean, author of best seller "The Orchid Thief," told PBS, "Nothing in science can account for the way people feel about orchids. Orchids arouse passion more than romance. They are the sexiest flowers on Earth."

Orchid fever
A single purple bloom from the high jungles of Moyobamba, Peru, launched the beginning of Lowman's end at Selby. It arrived at Selby June 5, 2002, when Lowman was on vacation. When Michael Kovach, a Virginia orchid dealer, showed up with the rare orchid at Selby that day in June, Selby's taxonomists were giddy. Taxonomists name and describe new species, and Kovach's new tropical lady slipper orchid, a phragmipedium with a massive flower purchased from a roadside stand in Peru, presented a rare opportunity for glory.

At Selby, which boasts a collection of some 6,000 living orchid species, Wesley Higgins, Selby's director of systematics, accepted Kovach's orchid on behalf of the gardens. Higgins agreed to name the new phragmipedium for Kovach. In scientific nomenclature, first to print claims the name.

Selby's experts rushed to prepare a scientific description of the new orchid, and the gardens published it on June 12, 2002. Behold, Phragmipedium kovachii (pronounced ko-vock-ee-ay,) the description declared.

Across town, rival taxonomist Eric Christenson, a former Selby employee, was furious. He'd had the new phragmipedium on his radar: Working off a photo and descriptions from colleagues in Peru, Christenson had wanted to name the orchid Phragmipedium peruvianum to honor its home country. Losing the naming rights battle to Selby by seven days, Christenson took it personally. "They knew I was working on it, and they wanted to stick it to me," he says.

Christenson found a way to stick Selby back. Of the more than 20,000 orchid species, about 150 are phragmipediums. Threatened with extinction, phragmipediums can only be traded in rare circumstances, and then only with a proper permit in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna treaty (CITES). Anyone who illegally trades a phragmipedium or possesses an illegally traded one violates the U.S. Endangered Species Act, an offense punishable by up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Christenson howled to federal authorities that Kovach had imported the new species illegally. "The minute this thing hit the U.S., everyone knew it was illegal," Christenson says of the orchid that experts call the most important find in a century.

Selby had expected a rain of praise: Instead, federal investigators unleashed a storm -- subpoenas for records, grand jury interrogations of Selby staffers and ultimately criminal indictments against Kovach, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and Higgins, all of whom eventually pleaded guilty.

No brakes
Just who should have put the ethical brakes on at Selby when Phragmipedium kovachii landed on the gardens' doorstep?

Lowman, a scientist and not a taxonomist, she points out, was out of town when the orchid came in. Later, she had a hard time extracting the truth of what happened from staff members, she says. Certain Selby staff members were assigned to check permits. "You cannot be in the desks of your staff for everything," Lowman says.

In his sworn and written plea agreement with the government, Higgins says he told Lowman the orchid was illegal days before the gardens published the name and description in its journal. In a recent interview, however, Higgins says he told Lowman what documentation Kovach had but didn't tell her explicitly that the CITES treaty import permit was missing. Kovach had some documentation showing U.S. Customs in Miami and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cleared the orchid, Higgins says.

"I told (Lowman), 'It wasn't what I expected, but it seemed to be good enough for the government,' " Higgins says.

It wasn't good enough for the government. And pressure from the ongoing federal investigations created a hothouse at Selby. Lowman broke ranks with Selby's legal team. "The legal people all wanted us to stick together," says Lowman, who has kept publicly silent about her version of events until now. "And there were others of us who had nothing to do with it. I didn't want to be part of the guilty party because I was innocent."

Ultimately, a civil war erupted. Lowman describes it as a split between "the orchid people and the conservationists." Barbara Hansen, Selby's current board chairwoman, says Lowman was too narrowly focused on her own specialty and insists that Selby has never abandoned conservation. "We live by conservation," she says.

Ultimately, the Selby board fired Lowman at a closed door meeting in July 2003 that she wasn't permitted to attend.

Lowman's detractors call her a media darling and even a self-promoter. The board fired Lowman because she paid more attention to her own scientific endeavors -- forest canopy research -- than to administrative housekeeping, says David Benzing, a biology professor hired to review operations at Selby.

As the orchid furor raged in the year leading up to Lowman's firing, the non-profit Selby Gardens lost $200,000, the most recent available tax returns show. But if donations fell off during Lowman's last months, they plummeted after she left. Selby board members who supported Lowman left en masse. Four of five Ph.D. scientists eventually left the gardens. Former board member Joel Fedder, who resigned in protest after Lowman's firing, says a faction on the board wanted to focus on orchids and bromeliads, not their ecosystems. Orchid fever won.

In January 2004, a month after they were charged, Higgins and Selby Gardens pleaded guilty to a single count each of violating the Endangered Species Act. Higgins paid a $2,000 fine and was sentenced to six months of house arrest and two years' probation. In November, a federal judge sentenced Kovach to two years' probation and ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine.

Selby, the first botanical gardens in the nation to face charges under the Endangered Species Act, paid a $5,000 fine and was sentenced to three years' probation. The plea agreement also required it to take out a full page ad in American Orchid Society's Orchids magazine apologizing for its behavior and send letters to the leading herbariums in the country describing Selby's cautionary tale. Selby also agreed to ask the International Botanical Congress to rescind the name Phragmipedium kovachii and change the nomenclature rules to prohibit names based on illegal specimens.

Selby's criminal charge has set the botanical garden world on edge. The government wants to make botanical gardens its policemen in enforcing the CITES treaty -- not the role of scientists, Higgins says.

The name will stay kovachii, says Higgins. Scientists recognize that the politics of trade can't interfere with the rules governing scientific names, he says. "Regardless of how it's imported, it's still an important scientific find that needed to be published," he says.

Although an initial target of the government's investigation, Lowman wasn't indicted. But the language worked out in the plea agreements after Lowman left the gardens has given ammunition to her critics. "Obviously, somebody should have done due diligence to a greater degree," Benzing says. He adds: "At some point (Lowman) knew about it before it blew up."

Moving on
Lowman says her reputation in the scientific community is intact. "If anything, it enhanced my stature because I stuck with my values," Lowman says.

As a biology and environmental studies professor at New College, Lowman has spearheaded a partnership in which New College provides academic expertise to help Sarasota County care for its public lands. Students conduct research projects on the lands and lead nature hikes with Lowman for the public to describe how scientists sample insects and the treetops.

Almost a year and a half after Lowman's departure, the gardens has been unable to find a CEO to fill her position. Hansen won't say how much the orchid cost the gardens in legal bills or donations. "That's past us. That's done. The bill is paid," Hansen says. She says Selby has new classes, new instructors and more people interested in signing on as sponsors.

Lowman's touch still graces the gardens. The gift shop sells her book. And Lowman -- pictured on a display board dangling from a rope hitched to a tree branch -- still greets visitors at the entrance to Selby Gardens.

Tags: Politics & Law, Around Florida, Agriculture, Government/Politics & Law

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