It was in a hut in the Andes that Fauquier County orchid grower James Michael Kovach first laid eyes on the rare, magnificent flower that has literally made his name in the orchid industry, and possibly ruined it as well.
That the flower, now recognized worldwide as Phragmipedium kovachii, is spectacular in size and color is not in question. Whether Kovach knowingly stole an endangered species and brought it home from Peru is another matter altogether.
Before daylight one morning in August, a half-dozen federal agents shouldered their way into Kovach's bungalow on the north side of Goldvein, a flat speck of a Virginia town with 500 inhabitants, two Baptist churches, a post office and a general store. The agents hovered over his collection of orchids growing in pots in the kitchen and living room, while they told Kovach and his wife to get dressed.
The phragmipedium kovachii was already back in Peru. For three hours, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigators confiscated receipts, photographs, phone records and anything else that might help determine whether Kovach, 47, committed a botanical crime on a trip to Peru a few months earlier to find orchids for his mail-order business.
In the Andes, he had stumbled on a mountain hut where a young woman showed him one of the most incredible flowers he'd ever seen: a foot-tall lady-slipper the color of raspberries. The orchid's size -- twice as big as other lady-slippers -- and rich palette distinguish it from the nearly 100 other species of lady-slippers, prized orchids that are nicknamed for how the petals form curvy, rectangular pouches.
Kovach raced the wild orchid back to the United States so that his finding could be published and named for him.
With that, the phragmipedium kovachii became notorious.
Orchid lovers went into a frenzy. Smugglers began plucking the flowers from their native habitat and selling them for as much as $10,000 each to growers who saw the promise of crossing them with other species of orchid to produce rich, new varieties that could be sold legally for $200 a bloom.
Orchids are a $2 billion industry -- the most lucrative flower business worldwide. About 20,000 species exist, with about 500 new ones discovered each year. Few, if any, are as showy as the kovachii, which has many of the half-million orchid enthusiasts around the world wondering how Kovach could have brought this magnificent find into the United States legally.
If he did.
When Kovach arrived in Miami with the orchid in June, he didn't have the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species permit, which controls the transfer of endangered animals, animal parts and plants, including rare orchids. Kovach says he had no way of knowing that his plant was endangered; what's more, he says he was told by Peruvian officials that he did not need such a permit, and they gave him environmental permits instead.
Kovach has not been charged with a crime, and Fish and Wildlife officials declined to comment on their investigation, except to say it remains active. The penalty for a criminal conviction on importing an endangered species is up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
The investigation has changed everything for Kovach, a former carpenter and jeweler who says God led him into the orchid business seven years ago, and his wife, Barbara Ellison, 49, a photographer who often accompanies him on trips, as she did to Peru, to take pictures of his flowers.
Kovach feels shunned by the 200,000 growers and hobbyists in the United States. Invitations to speak at orchid society annual meetings have dried up. Almost nobody buys any of the 8,000 orchids from Vietnam, Laos and Borneo in his backyard greenhouse, so the couple is relying mainly on Ellison's salary from Canon U.S.A. Inc., which pays her to teach journalists how to use the company's digital cameras.
The career Kovach sought to cap with his find is a shambles, he said, all because he dared to "exploit an opportunity." His critics -- including a competitor who was ready to publish the same orchid, crediting Peru, when Kovach claimed the honor for himself -- say it's not surprising after the way he tried to achieve botanical immortality.
"This is all a matter of ego, bravado and stupidity," said Eric Christenson, a Sarasota, Fla., taxonomist who was preparing to describe the flower for the quarterly magazine of the American Orchid Society. "It's just tacky."
It was late May when Kovach and Ellison traveled to Moyobamba in northern Peru, known as the "Orchid City" because of the 2,000 varieties that flourish in its subtropical climate. Kovach said he was on a mission to save orchids from logging and farm operations in the area as well as to stock his inventory.
One day he drove past a hut where an Indian family was selling Maxillaria orchids, which he had been craving. But the daughter wanted to show him something in the back and emerged with a flower in full bloom -- magenta and utterly seductive.
"I had never seen anything in literature about it. It was an incredible lily, an iris, or maybe a slipper orchid. I was struggling not to let my jaw scrape the parking lot," Kovach recalled recently as he worked in his greenhouse. "I bought three of them for $6.50 apiece."
He gave two to an American friend in Peru, he said, and saved the third to bring to a U.S. botanical institution for identification, because he said he knew of no Peruvian institution that was up to the task -- and none that would name it for him.
He rolled the delicate orchid in newspaper, slid it into a cardboard tube, packed it in his suitcase full of dirty clothes and flew to Florida. Customs officials in Miami waved him on twice, he said, even after he told them he had plants to declare. He admits he felt uneasy and wondered whether the rules had changed.
The next morning he brought the orchid to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, where scientists were enthralled. Researchers worked all night, describing the plant's roots, leaves, petals and color -- finishing an article that normally can take up to six months to write. Ten days later, Selby published a description and two photographs in its journal.
Botanical institutions that are the first to publish findings get the honor of giving a flower its permanent Latin name, which is often based on the name of the discoverer.
Kovach, who speaks of phragmipedium kovachii with the swagger of a heavyweight boxer on fight night, asks: "Why is it not okay for me to seek recognition for my work? It's okay for the U.S. attorney to try and throw me in jail to enhance his career, but it's not okay for me to exploit an opportunity? Every success story is about someone exploiting an opportunity to enhance their career."
The problem arises from that endangered-species permit that Kovach did not have.
Kovach believes it's a Catch-22: How could he know he needed the permit if the plant was unknown to him, let alone to all of science?
He denies a statement in the government's search warrant affidavit that he "admitted" during an interview with Fish and Wildlife agents that "he knew he was importing" flowers that require permits.
Roddy Gabel, a Fish and Wildlife official who is not involved in the case but is an orchid grower, said a veteran such as Kovach should have detected that his orchid was a lady-slipper, every species of which requires an endangered-species permit of some sort.
Kovach says Peruvian officials told him he didn't need a permit. After the Selby publication, the government in Lima accused him of exporting the orchid illegally and demanded its return. It is now in a museum there, and orchid chat rooms on the Internet are buzzing with anticipation.
"Everyone's waiting for the other shoe to drop," Gabel said.
Many botanists and orchid growers believe the permit process for endangered species is flawed because it doesn't allow growers to save plants from areas threatened by development. That's the real point, according to Eric Hansen, author of the book "Orchid Fever."
"I'm sure he knew what he had, but Michael Kovach is not threatening the survival of the species," Hansen said. "The real threat is habitat destruction, but not one orchid has been saved in the 30 years the [endangered-species] law has been in effect." About 160 countries abide by the law, which was adopted in Washington.
Meanwhile, Kovach said, "I have been made a pariah. I've gotten some calls that were congratulatory and sympathetic, and that kind of renewed my faith in humanity. But I'm old enough to know how petty people can be."
For now, he wants the return of all the items confiscated from his home. He is especially upset about "Evidence Seizure Tag No. 655508" on the government's search warrant: his proposal for a TV series called "The Orchid Hunter."
"You know that show 'The Crocodile Hunter'? I was experimenting with a show that could be like that," he said. " 'This week maxillaria, and next week kovachii.' "