Orchid Hunter

PBS Airdate: November 26, 2002
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NARRATOR: They are among the oldest flowering plants on earth. They outlived the dinosaurs and may outlive us. There's more than 25,000 species. But what is it about orchids that inflames human passions?

SUSAN ORLEAN (Author, The Orchid Thief): 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.

NARRATOR: What is the mystery behind the orchid's power of seduction? Over the last three centuries, dozens of people have died while hunting them. And this man came within an inch of joining them.

TOM HART DYKE (Orchid Hunter): I went into Central America with my friend Paul looking for orchids and looking for a whole array of plants.

NARRATOR: While in the jungles of Colombia, he and his friend were kidnapped by terrorists.

TOM HART DYKE: It was like...I've never been on death row...track record in the past: if there's no ransom well that's the end of you, isn't it?

NARRATOR: Then after nine months of captivity...

NEWSREADER: Christmas arrived a few days early as the former hostages were reunited with their families. The two had been searching for rare orchids in a particularly dangerous area of jungle between Colombia and Panama. Hostage taking is practically an industry here.

TOM HART DYKE: It was scary. It was hilarious. It was things I'd never felt before.

NARRATOR: Now safely home on his family's estate in England, you would think he has had enough botanical adventure. But only 14 months since his release, Tom Hart Dyke has returned to the jungle.

TOM HART DYKE: If I can find a species of orchids that's as good as this, but new or better, it really is worth risking everything to see these beautiful flowers. It really is good.

NARRATOR: What could possess a man to risk his life for a flower?

Orchid Hunter, up next on NOVA.

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NARRATOR: A member of an eccentric community that dates back to the Victorian era, Tom Hart Dyke is an orchidophile, an orchid fanatic. For two years, he traveled the world hunting for orchids, and then was captured by guerillas in Colombia and held hostage for nine months. Since his release he's spent almost all his time at orchid fairs and in the greenhouses on his family estate.

TOM HART DYKE: I can hardly think of one time in my life when I've gone out to do one specific thing that hasn't in some way been related to plants, in fact there hasn't been. I think about plants more than anything else. The downsides, obviously, to someone else's normal life has to be things like the social side, like going out and nightclubs and whatever else, and obtaining, acquiring a girlfriend. It's a constant nightmare because there is a barrier.

NARRATOR: This obsession with orchids is not uncommon. In his 1939 book The Orchid Hunters, Norman McDonald 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."

SUSAN ORLEAN: Collecting orchids is a kind of love sickness. It, it is excruciating. And you can't ever feel that you've known every orchid that can be known because there are so many.

NARRATOR: They are the largest family of plants on Earth, with over 25,000 species that come in all shapes and sizes.

SUSAN ORLEAN: One species looks just like a German Shepherd dog with its tongue sticking out. One species looks like an onion. One looks like an octopus. One looks like a human nose. One looks like the kind of fancy shoes that a king might wear. One looks like Mickey Mouse. One looks like monkey. One looks dead.

NARRATOR: Most share a few key characteristics that distinguish them from other flowers. Orchids can only be cut symmetrically in one direction. They're called zygomorphic. Other flowers, like daisies, are symmetrical no matter how you slice it.

Most plants get their nutrients and moisture from the soil in which they grow. But many orchids, hanging high on trees, get most everything they need from the sun, the air and rain. They're called epiphytes.

One of the most unusual features of orchids is that their male and female reproductive parts are fused into a single structure called the column. Other flowers, like lilies, have separate male stamens surrounding a female pistil.

But perhaps the thing that distinguishes orchids most is the passion they arouse in people. It's a passion that generates a 10-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Many people attend orchid fairs just to smell the flowers, but when an individual prize orchid can fetch up to $25,000, you can bet some people come to compete.

Orchid judging began when the first orchid hunters brought exotic plants home to 19th century Victorian England. Since then exacting standards have been set. Orchid judges, like these at the American Orchid Society, spend years in training. They've got to know the lineage of any individual contender and compare how it measures up against past award winners.

GREG ALLIKAS: Here we're getting a little more ruffling on the edges of this. This awarded clone seems to have a flatter lip.

NARRATOR: They touch and talk...

ANDY EASTON: If you go to the oriental standard, it's sort of polite—that the petals are concealing the reproductive parts there—and, and they actually grade that higher.

NARRATOR: ...and then tally the score.

MILTON CARPENTER: Judges, we've got the scores that range...well, we have two at 76, one at 77, and Arlene is at, at 78, at 78.

NARRATOR: Any orchid worthy of a prize has to be meticulously described.

MILTON CARPENTER: To begin with, ah, as far as our description, the obvious is that we have a plant with, ah, two erect inferecenses with the flowers well held on the inferecense.

RON MCHATTON: Petals, creamy white; lip, creamy white; crest, column and anthrocap, pale lemon color.

NARRATOR: The winning orchid becomes the new orchid to beat. But win or lose, the fairs and contests incite the passion of orchid lovers everywhere.

It's a passion called, "orchid fever." Tom, an amateur horticulturist, has a bad case of it. He caught it growing up on his family estate, mainly from his grandmother.

Now Tom's orchid fever and a burgeoning desire to pay tribute to his grandmother are about to combust into a dangerous mission. Tom's going back into the jungle to find a new species of orchid to name after her.

TOM HART DYKE: One thing is she hasn't got a clue about it. Not a hint. I haven't mentioned it. It would be quite nice not to tell her until it's actually done. It would be quite nice, wouldn't it?

NARRATOR: If he's successful, his grandmother will join the ranks of many illustrious people.

SUSAN ORLEAN: There is an official registry for orchids, practically from the time Victorians began collecting them, and the tradition of naming them has continued, even now. And there are orchids named after well-known people. There's a Richard Nixon orchid, a Jacqueline Onassis orchid. There's an Elizabeth Taylor orchid. There is a, I believe, a Barbara Bush orchid. And who knows? There might even be a Susan Orlean orchid.

NARRATOR: Finding a new species of orchid to name after Tom's grandmother is not going to be easy. Over the last two hundred years, there aren't many places that orchid hunters haven't been.

JEFF WOOD (Kew Gardens): This is Dendrobium ratrapholium, which was collected by a Mr. Heinz in New Guinea in 1841.

NARRATOR: But Tom's research has come up with Papua New Guinea. At Kew Gardens, the world's oldest orchid conservatory, Jeff Wood, a leading authority on South East Asian orchids, agrees.

JEFF WOOD: We have a vast range of ecological niches ranging from the coastal mangrove in the south up to the central highlands.

ANDY EASTON (American Orchid Society): It's not an easy country to go and find orchids in because you make a wrong turn and you could end up as tomorrow's lunch, you know. There's still headhunters there. There's dangerous areas there.

TOM HART DYKE: I know that it's got its political problems. I know there's a lot of guerrilla activity there. I know that the terrain is terrible and the diseases are rife, but that's why it's such a good place to go. If you want to find a new species of orchid you've got to go to places that are dangerous, because no one else goes there.

NARRATOR: Tom's mission takes him to Jayapura on the western half of New Guinea. Before he goes into the jungle, he needs to find a guide. And since orchids are protected under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Tom's guide will need a permit to collect orchids.

Pak Agus works at the forestry department and like Tom is mad about orchids.

TOM HART DYKE: Right in the wild I hope to see, please.

NARRATOR: He suggests that they head to the Baliem Valley, a place renowned for wild orchids. But it must be said that a botanical party in that area was recently held hostage for four months, and two of their members were beheaded before the Indonesian army could rescue them. This is not a safe place. So Tom enlists the support of Hungarian-born anthropologist Kal Muller, who's lived on the island for the past ten years.

KAL MULLER: ...still on the easy part. We've got two days walking coming up.

TOM HART DYKE: This is tiring enough, Kal...bum bruising stuff...'cause at the end of the day I know my goal. I know I'll see some orchids at the end of it.

KAL MULLER: The grandmother of all orchids, that's what you're after.

TOM HART DYKE: Sure, that's right, the bigger the better, impress my gran. Come on.

NARRATOR: Kal is taking them on a two-day march from where the road ends. There they'll find the last settlement before undisturbed primary cloud forest. But once again, there's potential danger: the Dani tribesmen are headhunters, although the last reported incident was in 1974. Nevertheless, Tom is eager to hunt orchids and quickly gets out his books to see if Kayu, the Chief's son, and the village elders can guide him.

KAL MULLER: The basic problem is, since these are orchids, which they see but they don't really use, the flowers are kind of similar to them. They're very different to you but they're similar to them.

NARRATOR: The Dani may be hunters, but hunting orchids isn't quite their game. They still agreed to take Tom deep into the jungle tomorrow.

SUSAN ORLEAN: Orchid hunting hasn't really changed over the last 200 years and orchid hunters haven't really changed. You have to be brave; you have to be somewhat foolish. You also have to be passionate and dedicated to finding something that, unlike diamond, or gold, or oil, it's not going to make you rich. It may not make you famous. Finding a rare orchid may get you, at best, a botanical footnote.

NARRATOR: The next morning after breakfast, for the first time since he was released by the kidnappers fourteen months ago, Tom is back in the jungle hunting for orchids.

TOM HART DYKE: I strongly feel that one of the main reasons why we were released from Colombia is because I drove my captors completely around the bend. I was out of control. It didn't matter that they had lots of guns, orchids were there. But once the commandant gave the go ahead for me just to collect on my own, game over, it was an orchid frenzy. The camp fell apart. At the end of it, they really wanted to get rid of us. They couldn't face another orchid again.

NARRATOR: Within a couple hours, Tom demonstrates the same behavior that drove his Colombian kidnappers crazy.

TOM HART DYKE: Kal? You see the orchid there, Kal?


TOM HART DYKE: To the right of the fern.

KAL MULLER: Well the fern's everywhere. That looks...

TOM HART DYKE: The big clump of fern here.

KAL MULLER: Okay, okay, okay, yeah.

TOM HART DYKE: There's a white bloom coming down there.

KAL MULLER: Okay, yeah, yeah. I've got it, got it.

TOM HART DYKE: Got it. Do you fancy coming along?


TOM HART DYKE: 'Cause we've got ropes and things. It's not too bad.



KAL MULLER: To look at a flower? You're crazy. I'm an old man and you're young. Go for it.

TOM HART DYKE: Excellent! Good choice. I will.

No one on a rope, from England or anywhere in the world, has gone down that cliff face. I've got to go and risk it, risk my life to go and get it. We love it. And it's higher than obviously you think. When you go over the edge and you look down there, it's incredible.

Some Dendrobiums here, lets take a look. Unfortunately, even the water won't save me in the position I'm in. If I fall, I'll hit a rock. You don't get bruised from this height, no chance. Oh, I've got it. I've got it. I've found it. I've found it right at the bottom of the branch. I've got it.

I'm going to check in and have a good sniff of it. It's taking fragrance, a fragrance check. There's no fragrance, there is no...I mean it's first fragrance check. Moss check, moss is covering my mouth and my blood's going to my head, cause I'm frigging upside down. But if I can find a species of orchids that's as good as this—brand new, or better and new, wow! I'll be straight down that cliff face and straight down that waterfall. It really is worth risking everything to see these beautiful flowers. It really is good.

KAL MULLER: Crazy thing to do. But if you like flowers, I guess if you're in love with flowers maybe...but I wouldn't do it, not for a flower.

NARRATOR: But Tom would, for a flower named Dendrobium lawesii—pretty, with its hanging bell-like flowers, and much sought after, but definitely not a new species.

In risking his life, Tom carries on a noble tradition. In 1901, eight orchid hunters went on an expedition to the Philippines. Within a month, one had been eaten by a tiger, another had been drenched with oil and burned alive, five vanished into thin air and one managed to stay alive and walk out of the woods carrying 47,000 Phalaenopsis orchid plants.

But if you're not inclined to risk your life, and you still want 47,000 orchid plants, it may be safer to make an expedition to your local warehouse super-store. Unlike the 1880s when orchid collecting was the domain of the very wealthy, since the 1980s, the business of orchids has been transformed. Kerry Herndon doesn't just grow them, he mass produces them in his orchid factory in Homestead, Florida.

KERRY HERNDON (Kerry's Bromeliad Nursery): A friend of mine calls this obscene. There's just so many spectacular, beautiful orchids here. On every bench there's 600 plants. The row is a hundred benches long. So you've got 60,000 blooming plants in a row, 120,000 blooming plants in a bay, and there are 17 bays.

NARRATOR: That totals over 2,000,000 blooming orchids. And then there's at least another 3,000,000 orchids at different stages of growth. With more than 200 workers, an automated conveyor system, computer controlled climate, nearly a million and a half square feet of greenhouses covering an area of five city blocks, and more than five million plants, this is one of the largest orchid factories on Earth.

The seeds of the modern orchid industry in America were planted at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the 1980s, when Dr. Robert Griesbach started doing genetic research on orchids, orchids didn't even rank 100 on the best selling plant list. But by creating orchid strains that can survive the toughest conditions, like those found in the homes of negligent weekend gardeners, orchids are now the number two best selling plant in America. Number one is poinsettias, but unlike orchids, poinsettias usually end up in dumpsters the day after Christmas.

ROBERT GRIESBACH (U.S. Department of Agriculture): One of the reasons that the orchids are seeing increases in sales is the consumer is looking at them as a good bargain. If we buy a poinsettia and it only lasts several weeks, you can buy an orchid for the same price and it will last several months.

NARRATOR: Science and industry have conspired to democratize the world of orchid collecting.

KERRY HERNDON: Twenty years ago, if you wanted to buy a blooming orchid you were going to spend $35 to $75. Now we can deliver an orchid that's beautiful and healthy and the retails start at $4.99.

NARRATOR: And Kerry could have sold Tom the Dendrobium for which he risked his life for $25. But to an orchid hunter, it's not enough to just own a treasure trove of orchids.

TOM HART DYKE: Gee, look death here...but look at them. One, two, three, four, five.

NARRATOR: The thrill is in the hunt.

TOM HART DYKE: Uh, yeah, yeah, yeah, Agus, look. Ooh.


NARRATOR: Tom's been up since dawn, trekking to the far side of the Dani tribe's hunting grounds.

TOM HART DYKE: ...especially higher up. Where the orchids are low down they're growing all over the ground. They're not up the trees. Forget the trees. Look on the ground. They're falling over them.

NARRATOR: There he immediately makes an important find. Could this be the orchid to name after his grandmother?

TOM HART DYKE: You suppose, you think it's a new species?


TOM HART DYKE: My grandmother! It's's alright. You know, "it's not very big but still it'll do" sort of thing.

NARRATOR: It's not exactly an Elizabeth Taylor orchid, or even a Barbara Bush.

TOM HART DYKE: I think it's a pile of cack, really. I need to be honest. I hope we find something a bit bigger.

NARRATOR: Agus thinks that it's a member of the group or genus Bulbophyllum but can't identify the species. Tom decides to bank this plant in case they find nothing more impressive. He takes a photograph and GPS reading, both vital for a formal identification. Later that night he can't find the plant on his computer. Could this be a new species?

Finding a new species of orchid is difficult, but not impossible. But finding it is only half the battle. Being the first to publish, and thus have the honor of naming it, can be just as difficult. Recently, a new phragmapedium was discovered in Peru. When it was brought into the orchid I.D. center at Selby Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, Wesley Higgins was ready for the race to begin.

WESLEY HIGGINS (Marie Selby Botanical Gardens): So this flower was so spectacular we knew that there had to be others, you know, racing to get the name into publication.

NARRATOR: First, they had to work fast, because the original phrag had to be sent back to Peru, under the terms of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species. But, as with any orchid that arrives at the I.D. Center, Higgins enters its description into their database while John Beckner checks the files.

They could find nothing like this orchid. Higgins scrambled to put together a team of three experts to write a Latin description of the new phragmapedium while Beckner pressed a dried specimen.

The only missing element for publication was a drawing of the new plant.

STIG DALSTRUM (Marie Selby Botanical Gardens): The editor came into this room here and asked me, can I do a color illustration. "We need it desperately; for tomorrow." And, ah, I started work right away, and started to sketch the outline of the plant or whatever, and by three o'clock in the morning it was done. And that was the right time to stop because my eyes went crosswise.

NARRATOR: That same day, in a special supplement to Selby Garden's scientific journal, the phragmapedium was officially introduced to the world. The honor of naming it went to the man who brought it through the door, Mike Kovack.

WESLEY HIGGINS: He requested that it be named after him, so it was given the name Phragmipedium kovachii.

JOHN BECKNER (Marie Selby Botanical Gardens): This is the most spectacular, the most sensational, the most incredible looking orchid in 100 years or more.

NARRATOR: This is an orchid hunter's dream. If Tom can find a new orchid as beautiful as Phragmipedium kovachii, he will have found a tribute to his grandmother worthy of the Queen of England.

He's anxious to get back out to the jungle, but Kal wants to give Tom a lesson in material anthropology. He has discovered that the Dani use fibers from the Diplocaulobium orchid to make nets for hunting. To the world outside the Dani tribe, there is one other orchid out of the 25,000 species that has some practical value. It's Vanilla planifolia, and its seedpods produce the flavor vanilla.

But Tom is only interested in the beauty of the flower, and his time to find a new species is running out.

TOM HART DYKE: Agus, Dendrobium?

PAK AGUS: Yeah, yeah, Dendrobium.

TOM HART DYKE: This is getting ridiculous. There is just too much stuff and we're getting it down to the genus. Five, ten percent of it I know what the species is. Yeah, that's Cascadetia. Yeah, that's right. And what is that? That's not very good...a new species?

PAK AGUS: Yeah, a new species.

TOM HART DYKE: Maybe, maybe not.

NARRATOR: It's déjà vu all over again.

TOM HART DYKE: Yeah, a new species.

NARRATOR: Both Tom and Agus may be out of their depth. They're having difficulties with the genus and subgenus, let alone being able to recognize the subtleties of species and subspecies.

But then Tom stumbles into a field that re-ignites his passion.

TOM HART DYKE: And there, look, John, there as well, and there, look, and there, look, and there, look, and there, look, and there and there.

NARRATOR: This grassy glade is orchid heaven.

KAL MULLER: What are we getting so excited about?

TOM HART DYKE: Kal, you've got to have a look at this. This is what it's about, Kal. This is the trip. This is why I'm here.

KAL MULLER: Turn them around so I can see it.

TOM HART DYKE: Don't you just see that pouch? Do you see that slipper?

KAL MULLER: Very nice all right, all right.

NARRATOR: Paphiopedilum wilheminae, a slipper orchid.

TOM HART DYKE: Do you see that branch?

NARRATOR: If this doesn't give you orchid fever, nothing will.

Behind every orchid's beauty lies one of the most seductive reproduction strategies on earth. All flowers reproduce with the help of the birds and the bees, insects and even wind. Conception takes place when pollen tubes, the flower equivalent of sperm, make contact with egg cells deep in the pistil. It's kind of a sloppy shotgun approach.

Orchids, on the other hand, are more like smart bombs. They trick insects into picking up their pollen sacks by hiding them inside what is often their largest and most colorful petal.

KENNETH CAMERON (New York Botanical Gardens): Insects are attracted to the flower by its color and by the spots and hairs on the lateral petals. They hone in on the center of the flower and immediately fall into this waxy pouch-like petal known as the lip. The only way to escape this flower is to travel up the back side of the petal, where there are hairs, and to exit out of either side of the column, where a small hole and a mass of pollen awaits the insect. The bee will then carry pollen on its back to another flower.

NARRATOR: On the other orchid's female sex organ, buried on the underside of the column, millions of pollen grains are precisely positioned to come into ultimate contact with tens of thousands of little orchid eggs. That's a lot bang for the buck.

To insure reproductive success, an orchid comes up with amazing tactics, sometimes even deceiving an insect into believing that it, too, is an insect.

ANDY EASTON: You have some of these terrestrial orchids that are actually pollinated by the male insect of a species that mistakes the orchid flower for the female. And so, in technical terms, they call it pseudo-copulation.

NARRATOR: While the male wasp is at it, the orchid glues its pollen sack onto the insect's head. When the wasp is frustrated enough, it goes off to another orchid, and this time the orchid grabs the pollen sack and conception is complete, at least for the orchid.

But beyond just the visual mimicry, the orchid further attracts the male insect with a fragrance that smells like the female sex pheromone. Plus, the orchid blooms two weeks before any female insects are even hatched.

ANDY EASTON: The male insect has got basically an orchid or nothing. I mean, it's the ultimate playboy sex. It's amazing.

SUSAN ORLEAN: The thing about orchids is they seem smart. They seem intelligent. And the way they get pollinated by tricking insects into thinking that they are actually the most beautiful insect in the world...tricking an insect, that's extraordinary! And in a way that's what orchids have done to human beings. From practically the beginning of time, they've managed to seduce people into looking for them, collecting them, caring for them, being absorbed by them. And that's sort of an extraordinary quality that you can't just chalk up to simple science. There's something there, something that maybe we really can't even understand.

NARRATOR: It's that special undefinable quality that drives Tom to risk his life for an orchid, and may even infect Kal with orchid fever.

KAL MULLER: That is a lovely flower, I must say.

TOM HART DYKE: It is gorgeous, isn't it?

KAL MULLER: I do admit to that, yeah.

TOM HART DYKE: It is just, I mean it is a fantastic specimen.

KAL MULLER: And I'm beginning to understand the orchid fever.

TOM HART DYKE: Yeah, the virus is there, is there!

Slowly, slowly.

NARRATOR: It's Tom's last day in the Baliem Valley, and with Kal successfully initiated into the orchid cult, he's fired up to find his grandmother something more than that tiny Bulbophyllum. He's taken Agus down to the river, and within seconds they spot three unusual species.

TOM HART DYKE: see before, but very exciting. There's so many.

NARRATOR: But hiding away beneath an overhang, they find something really special.

TOM HART DYKE: Look at these, Agus. The flowers, look at these flowers here. It's unique. It's got the flowers of a Dendrobium and the features of a Bulbophyllum.

NARRATOR: Could this be the treasure that Tom has been seeking? An undiscovered cross between two different species of orchids?

TOM HART DYKE: But, hey, very interesting. It's quite exciting, I think, to do it.

NARRATOR: Flushed with success at their astonishing find, Tom decides to pay for a feast. He's leaving the valley tomorrow and wants to thank the villagers for all their work. It's a well-earned night of celebration, but tomorrow is the moment of truth.

TOM HART DYKE: Let me see if this fat is good as you say.

KAL MULLER: Thickens your blood.

NARRATOR: When Tom returns to Jakarta, there he will consult the experts to learn if he has succeeded in finding a new species to bear his grandmother's name. Once in the city, Tom discovers he's almost back to square one.

TOM HART DYKE: It's the same one. It's Dendrobium bulbophyllum, hybrid is Dendrobium nothofagicola. Oh, no.

NARRATOR: With better reference books, he and Agus quickly find that what they thought was a new hybrid is actually a well-known species.

TOM HART DYKE: Cheers, Mr. Reeves. Thank you very much. Next!

NARRATOR: And the other plant they found is, in Tom's opinion, unworthy of his grandmother's name. He's got to go back into the jungle. He's heading for the Van Rees Mountains, one of the last places in the world considered virgin territory.

TOM HART DYKE: I need to go to a place where no botanist has ever been, where no one's...has even documented a tree leaf.

NARRATOR: Less than half of this island has been explored by western scientists, and where they've gone, the finds have been astonishing. In the last 10 years, 25 new species of mammals, 16 new species of insect and seven new species of frog have been found. Relatively speaking Tom's chances are good. The nearest landing strip is a small missionary outpost on the edge of Lake Homes.

Having realized in the Baliem Valley that the combined knowledge of him and Agus just isn't comprehensive enough, Tom has brought in botanical big guns, Agustina Arobaya and her field assistant Julius. They are Papua New Guinea's leading orchid experts.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA:...really forest that has not been cultivated before.

TOM HART DYKE: Primary forest, say.


TOM HART DYKE: That'd be the place to go.

NARRATOR: After consulting where to go tomorrow, the downside of bringing in the professionals becomes clear.

TOM HART DYKE: So, Agustina, what do you think of my collection here of an aborania species?

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: How can you keep the specimen, if you just fold them like that and it's not flat?

TOM HART DYKE: But you see, all you have to do is put the specimen down here as flat as possible, put the loo roll on either side, shut the book and clamp on lots of dictionaries and suitcases.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: And that paper is going to...

NARRATOR: Tom's toilet paper technique for pressing specimens isn't up to professional orchid collecting standards.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: You can't disturb that, so normally I collect the specimen like this.

NARRATOR: It's clear that Tom, an amateur, is going to have to work hard to keep up with Agustina.

With provisions for six days, the team heads off to the northern shore of the lake, to primary rain forest, an area where no botanist has ever gone before.

For better or worse, this jungle, with its insect sounds and flora, is more reminiscent of the jungle where Tom was captured and held hostage on his orchid hunting expedition in Colombia.

TOM HART DYKE: Look at this.

NARRATOR: On their first day in this new territory everybody is excited about the astonishing range of orchids.

TOM HART DYKE: You can see it now, yeah.


TOM HART DYKE: It's lovely, isn't it? Small, but a lovely brown lip.

NARRATOR: But Tom's strong desire to find a plant for his grandmother is beginning to rub up against a growing sense of competitiveness, and it's Agustina who scores first.

TOM HART DYKE: And it's a different color isn't it, as well? There's a bell under...that's a different color here.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: Yeah and different petal of color.

NARRATOR: Tom isn't impressed. What Agustina has found is at best a subspecies of Dendrobium orchid, and Dendrobiums are the second most common genus on the Island.

Competition aside, Agustina's presence does ensure that the team has a much better chance of collecting plants that have never been discovered. And since the database doesn't contain the Dendrobium that she collected today, it may be Agustina who gets an orchid named after her first.

TOM HART DYKE: You're getting excited about "Agustina dendrobium."

NARRATOR: Orchids are known to excite. The English Herbal Guide in 1653 advised discretion: "Orchids are hot and moist in operation under the dominion of Venus and provoke lust exceedingly. The name "orchid" derives from the Latin, Orchis, which means testicle."

SUSAN ORLEAN: Orchids aren't just pretty. And a lot of them aren't even pretty at all. But they are sexy, and that's really one of the things that makes them unusual among flowers. It was believed that orchids sprang up wherever animals had been mating. And in Victorian England, women weren't allowed to have orchids because the form of them was thought to be too erotic and too sexual, and it would be too much for a woman to bear, having a flower that sexual in her possession.

TOM HART DYKE: Agus, Agustina.

NARRATOR: The next morning Tom is first to score.

TOM HART DYKE: Agustina.


TOM HART DYKE: It's Dipodium, yes? Are you excited, Agus? I'm really excited. It's kind of weird. But we have to decide who goes and gets it.


TOM HART DYKE: Well there's no one else is there? These guys are all having vine... yeah, yeah, I know, yeah.


NARRATOR: Agustina goads Tom to climb a 35-foot tall tree.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: Keep going, please.

TOM HART DYKE: Okay, Satu, Dua, Tiga!

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: Ooh, we got it. They are a different spot. Thank you, well done.

NARRATOR: With Tom safely back down on the ground, Agustina and Julius get out the books, and the news is good.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: This is a new species because...have a look at this book... white where it...

NARRATOR: Agustina is confident that there are enough differences between the well-documented Dipodium pictum and the plant that Tom has found to make it worth collecting.

TOM HART DYKE: All the odds against us...produced the goods. This is what I'm talking about though. This is...look it's got "grandmother"...look at it. G starts there, the R there and perhaps the N, D in the middle.

NARRATOR: Tom can't contain his one-upmanship.

But that night, he's tortured by doubt that his find is just a subspecies. And to make matters worse, he's getting sidetracked by his desire to out perform Agustina.

TOM HART DYKE: There. Look at the size of the plant. It's the biggest orchid plant I've ever seen. It's the classic species. Agustina...she's not going to come is she? No, this vine, it's just...the match, met her match. This isn't even my, this isn't even my stamping ground. It's her backyard.

NARRATOR: There's nothing new about this large flower, spotted 70 feet in the air. It's just that a few days ago Agustina firmly asserted that Tom would never see a Coelogyne orchid flowering this time of year. Tom's rubbing it in.

TOM HART DYKE: Going in with the fern on the left.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: Ah, yeah, I see it.

TOM HART DYKE: You see it, huh?


TOM HART DYKE: It seems to be in season all of sudden, doesn't it, Agustina?


TOM HART DYKE: Right now.


TOM HART DYKE: Three days ago it was out of season.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: But I can't climb it.

TOM HART DYKE: It's fine, I'll climb it. Well, I won't.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: You won't climb it for me?

TOM HART DYKE: I don't think I'll even bother. But I know a man who can. It's just, that tree is so straight and slippery.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: Can you do it if he can't manage?

TOM HART DYKE: So, Agustina, what do you think of this, this result then? Big flowers, big fragrance, big plant, well spotted, its all quite good news isn't it?

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: All the criteria.

NARRATOR: Tom knows it's a Coelogyne asperata, already a described species, but he gets the satisfaction of proving Agustina wrong.

With only two days of food left and still no definite plant to name for Tom's grandmother, personal obsession seems to be getting in the way, just as with the Victorian expeditions.

SUSAN ORLEAN: It's shocking to see what people have done to compete to be the one person who has an unusual orchid. In Victorian England, when orchid hunters would go out, if they would hear that another hunter was following in their path, they would take not just every single orchid they could find, they sometimes set the place on fire. So the hunter following them would come upon a moonscape that had been burned to the ground. In some instances there were stories of hunters urinating on each other's shipments as they were going back to England to make sure that the plants died. There were murders. There were probably more murders that we don't even know about of unknown orchid hunters who just never came back.

NARRATOR: Tension is high among the orchid hunters. There's a growing sense of urgency to cover more ground. Then, three hours from camp, Agus makes what may be the find of the trip.

TOM HART DYKE: What do you see here? You sure it's orchid? Agustina?

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: Well done. You're right, this is orchid.

TOM HART DYKE: And how are you telling it's the orchid?

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: That's the labellum.

TOM HART DYKE: So you've got the column at the back there, going down, and you've got the labella. The problem is, what's next?

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: But, I have no idea what the name is.

TOM HART DYKE: Guys, guys, guys. We're hopeless. This is the first time this trip and the first time I've been with you that we've never been able to try the genus.

NARRATOR: It's a plant to baffle the professionals. Agustina agrees it's a member of the orchid family, but has no idea what species it is and doesn't even have a clue what genus or group of species it's from. The last time a whole new genus of orchid was discovered was more than a decade ago in Ecuador.

TOM HART DYKE: So we have a new species, sure, but a new genus? That's something else.

AGUSTINA AROBAYA: Unknown genus.

TOM HART DYKE: It's two's like church bells on Sunday at half past ten... "unknown genus."

NARRATOR: The team is in a situation that most botanists can only dream of.

TOM HART DYKE: This is why we've come here. This is why we're in an unexplored area: to find unexplored things, but not just record them for the first time in this area, but to record them for the first time, full stop. First time. First time, boys. Not just species, not just species but genus. I don't see how you could get too much better than this.

NARRATOR: For a few moments, the orchid commands the hunters' reverential silence.

With such a potentially momentous find, Tom decides to quit while he's ahead. He's eager to get back to civilization and let the experts figure out if the plants he's found are all he hopes they will be.

Amazingly, experts only recently discovered that orchids are among the oldest flowering plants on Earth. At the New York Botanical Gardens, Kenneth Cameron is extracting orchid DNA to trace their evolution back over 100 million years. By mapping DNA sequences for individual orchids and then comparing thousands of samples, he's able to construct the entire orchid family tree. He's discovered that the oldest orchids originated at a time when the landmasses of earth formed a single super continent called, "Gondwana." As Gondwana split into the continents that exist today, orchids split with them and evolved into different species.

And at 100 million years old, orchids predate the extinction of the dinosaurs. In fact, the very asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs may have caused the climatic conditions that enabled orchids to become the most abundant and varied family of flowering plants.

KENNETH CAMERON: Earth's biota, its entire ecosystem, its climates shifted, and this allowed the flowering plant to become the dominant plant form on earth.

NARRATOR: They survived the dinosaurs, but will they survive the passion of the orchid hunter?

It's two months after Tom's return, and Jeff Wood at Kew Gardens has been working on the samples Tom exported from Papua New Guinea.

TOM HART DYKE: So what do you think of the samples that were brought back? Are they in quite good condition, or...

JEFF WOOD: Well, reasonably. No, they're identifiable certainly, most of them.

TOM HART DYKE: This is a huge disappointment. I can see, Jeff, that you've named it straight to a species.


TOM HART DYKE: We didn't know what it was in the jungle at all.

NARRATOR: The flower that commanded their awe is not a new genus or even a new species. It's dismissed as common.

JEFF WOOD: ...trapidia acuminate, but the genus itself is quite widespread across the Pacific Islands.

TOM HART DYKE: So it's widespread all over?

JEFF WOOD: Yes. It's found in Borneo as well, not just this particular species but...The genus is quite widespread in South East Asia.

NARRATOR: And regrettably, the Dendrobium that Agustina thought was going to bear her name, was actually discovered by J. J. Smith when Papua New Guinea was still a Dutch Colony.

TOM HART DYKE: Agustina will be, will be a bit upset about that.

NARRATOR: The new species of Dipodium is the well-described Dipodium pandanum. The only plant that offers a ray of hope is the very first Bulbophyllum that Tom found in the Baliem Valley.

TOM HART DYKE: I see there's not a species known there.

JEFF WOOD: No because Bulbophyllum...there's well over a thousand species of Bulbophyllum.

TOM HART DYKE: You think there's definitely a chance?

JEFF WOOD: Well, possibly, yes.

TOM HART DYKE: You've got to look at the flowers but...

JEFF WOOD: It's a very large genus, and its speciated greatly in New Guinea so...and there's quite a possibility it could be new.

NARRATOR: The only contender that might bear his grandmother's name, is the plant that Tom described as a "pile of cack!"

TOM HART DYKE: But all those things I said about you, I really didn't mean it, Bulbophyllum. You're absolutely great. I've been very rude to the plant. I take it completely back. I know it's a pile of cack in the past, but things have changed. When it's the best contender in town, things have got to change, and quick.

NARRATOR: In fact, Tom's grandmother's nickname is Crack. So why not? Bulbophyllum "Crack's cack."

TOM HART DYKE: Do you approve of that?

GRANDMOTHER: Yes, it's good.

TOM HART DYKE: You think it's quite funny. As long as I've got your approval of that then, that's excellent.

GRANDMOTHER: You certainly have. Well, I, yes, yes, I think it's wonderful.

NARRATOR: But even "Crack's cack" will not stand. Two days after this conversation, Jeff Wood from Kew Gardens called Tom to tell him that the plant is not new. It's called Bulbophyllum orbiculare.

Learning that he has not found the Holy Grail of orchidophiles, is certainly disappointing. But all is not lost for the orchid hunter; the bad news just gives him good reason to go back to the jungle.

Bitten by the orchid bug? On NOVA's Website, indulge your orchid obsessions with a photo gallery of flowers from around the world, at or America Online, Keyword PBS.

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