Almost every orchid grower dreams of seeing the rarest of orchids, the Holy Grail, just once in their lifetime. Alexandria resident Ken Meier is one such lucky grower.
A fiber optic technician by profession, he has been growing orchids for more than two decades. His backyard greenhouse is crammed with orchids that spill out into his yard during the warm summer months. Ken, who has more than two thousand orchids in his collection, is constantly in pursuit of new and unusual orchids.
While others kick back and head for the beach during their summer vacation, Ken can be found deep in the jungles of Asia and South America looking for orchids growing wild in their native habitat.
Meier has the distinction of being one of the few westerners to have seen what has been called the “orchid discovery of the century,” growing wild in its native habitat; an orchid so spectacular, that many wonder how it could have gone undiscovered for so long.
The tale of its discovery is one filled with the drama and passion that only orchids can inspire. This orchid was brought into the United States and described as a new species by Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in 2002. It was named Phragmipedium kovachii in honor of its American discoverer, Michael Kovach, of Goldvein, Va. Eventually, its “discoverer” would be indicted for smuggling the plant into the United States, the prestigious Selby Gardens disgraced, and the original habitats of this orchid plundered by illegal collectors.
Recently, Meier led an orchid expedition to the Andes in the remote northern region of Peru. His guide knew of two habitats were the fabled phragmipedium could still be found. “We hiked for about five hours through the jungle to reach the first habitat,” recalls Ken. “It was tough going and only a few members of our group made it—the rest turned back.”
Disappointingly, while they found several of the rare orchid plants, none were in flower. While the rest of his team gave up, Meier pressed on with his guide. “It was a strenuous hike up almost vertical cliffs, shrouded in mist. We finally reached the second habitat, and there on a mossy outcrop, I saw a single flower that simply took my breath away, though I was already out of breath from the low oxygen levels at that altitude.”
Meier is as excited today, as he describes the orchid that he saw a year ago: a voluptuous fuchsia flower almost half a foot across. “The color was so rich and deep, the flower could have been made out of velvet,” he enthuses. After about half an hour of admiring the flower and taking photos it was time to leave and carefully climb back down the slippery treacherous cliffs before darkness fell.
When asked, Meiei said he had no seeds or plants of Phragmipedim kovachii from his trip. It’s illegal to remove any slipper orchid plants or seeds from their native habitat, especially so endangered a species. Soon, legally propagated plants from Peru will be exported and available in United States,” Meier said.
Even so, it will be several more years before they bloom. Meier smiles with the patience that only orchid growers know. “It’s worth the wait…and until then I have my photographs and memories from Peru to remind me why.”