In the grip of orchid madness

Why would two highly respected men—one a professor of medicine, the other a government inspector—travel halfway round the world to dig up plants in a foreign country and risk spending three years in jail?

The answer is that they were in the grip of “orchidelirium”, an obsession with orchids, flowers described by a New Zealand fanatic as “extraordinarily beautiful and with a mystique that goes back for centuries”.

Or as the author of a 1939 book called The Orchid Hunters wrote: “When a man falls in love with orchids, he’ll do anything to possess the one he wants. It’s like chasing a green-eyed woman or taking cocaine, it’s a sort of madness.”

The sort of madness that prompted two prominent men from the Czech Republic to fly to New Zealand, where both pleaded guilty on Thursday to trading in specimens of a threatened species.

The first people to be charged with smuggling rare native orchids out of the country, they were caught with more than 40 threatened plants each in their luggage as they tried to fly out of Auckland International airport on January 18.

One was Cestmir Cihalik (54), a cardiologist and dean of medicine at Palacky University in the medieval Czech city of Olomouc.

The other, Jindrich Smitak (60), is an inspector with the Czech government’s environmental protection agency, chairperson of the Society of Tropical Orchid Growers in his home city, Brno, and a well-known collector and writer on the plants.

Smitak admitted further charges of stealing native plants from three national parks in New Zealand’s South Island.

Freed on bail, but unable to leave the country after surrendering their passports, it will be another three weeks before they know their fate, having been remanded for sentence until February 27.

The New Zealand Herald said the pair were caught after a network of about 150 New Zealand orchid lovers circulated a warning about two suspicious foreigners who had been asking to be guided to the flowers.

The locals were well aware of the orchidelirium phenomenon, which was publicised worldwide in the movie Adaptation, starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, based on American writer Susan Orlean’s bestseller The Orchid Thief.

Ian St George, a Wellington doctor of medicine and orchid fancier, told the Herald about 20 of New Zealand’s 150 or so native orchids were particularly rare.

He said most New Zealand fanciers believed in keeping them in their natural habitat.

Patrick Brownsey, botany curator at New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa, in Wellington, said the tragedy of smuggling orchids was that they were not easy to transplant and a lot would die when dug up.

“It’s just a waste and it’s doing great damage to the natural environment,” he said.—Sapa-DPA

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