Make every weekend epic with our free Weekender newsletter. Sign up today!

'Scent of Scandal' no garden-variety tale

Sordid stories about illegal smuggling and the resulting felony charges are as common as cloudless skies in the Sunshine State.

But this bizarre tale is not about drugs. It's about orchids.

Craig Pittman, author of "The Scent of Scandal" ($24.95, University Press of Florida), will visit South Florida next week to discuss the intriguing true story of the most-important orchid discovery of made in a century and how it nearly ruined the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

"I cover weird stories, like pythons battling alligators in the Everglades," says Pittman, an investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. "But orchid smuggling is by far the weirdest story I've ever covered in 15 years on the environmental beat."

The lively and often amusing nonfiction account takes readers on a wild globetrotting trek from Peru, where the plant was illegally collected, back to Florida.

Pittman introduces a large cast of eccentric, flower-crazed characters who have seemingly stepped out of an "Indiana Jones" flick, hunting the Holy Grail of orchids.

The coveted plant, known botanically as Phragmipedium kovachii, has gull-winged, pink-purple blooms as big as a man's hand.

"These are the folks that put the 'cult' in horticulture," Pittman says. "The orchid business is a $44 billion industry internationally. In Florida alone, it generates more than $23 million a year."

The book is written like a mystery.

"Even if you don't know anything about plants or orchids, this story has a big thriller aspect, like 'The Maltese Falcon,' " Pittman says. "It's the only book ever classified as true crime/gardening."

Pittman will speak 7 p.m. Monday at the Fort Lauderdale Orchid Society meeting at Christ Lutheran Church, 1955 E. Oakland Park Blvd., 954-553-1351,; and 7 p.m. Tuesday at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, 1801 N. Ocean Blvd., in Boca Raton, 561-544-8615,

Copyright © 2018, South Florida