Rare orchids blossom but can never be sold in hills of Guatemala

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The Independent US

"In Coban they say it rains 13 months a year," said Juan Flores, stopping to admire a delicate pale pink bloom. "I was born on a coffee finca on the Pacific coast where we used to have beautiful sunny days, so at first it was very hard to move here, but the orchids seem to like it."

It is 23 years since Otto Mittelstaedt, the finca owner, brought Mr Flores, whose surname, fittingly, means flowers, to this quiet hillside in Alta Verapaz state in central Guatemala. They are now home to the largest nursery for orchids in central America.

When Mr Mittelstaedt acquired the property, the terraces were groaning under the weight of hundreds of metal cages filled with birds because the previous owner had used it as an illegal cock-fighting den.

Mr Mittelstaedt, who is Guatemalan-born but like many middle-class landowners in Coban, descended from the wave of German immigrants who arrived to grow coffee in the 19th century, decided to use the site to create a vivero - a nursery for orchids. His work has saved the plant from extinction because its forest habitat is gradually being destroyed.

Today the Vivero Verapaz holds more than 600 varieties of orchids, including, on occasion, the rare and much coveted monja blanca or white nun, an albino variety local to the region.

It is prized by orchid aficionados who come from all over the world to the orchid festival held in the town's beautiful convent every November.

Each year the vivero receives numerous requests to send its young plants to collectors abroad, and each year Mr Flores has to explain that although the plants were nurtured in the vivero, the law states that no orchids can leave the country.

Deforestation in Guatemala has led to the orchid's extinction in the wild. This means there is a black market in orchid smuggling.

The irony for Mr Mittelstaedt is that, because of the restrictions, he cannot sell the orchids and might have to close the vivero. "The law which is designed to save our natural flora from plant smugglers is also preventing us from selling what we've grown ourselves," he said while sheltering from the rain in a shed the size of a small house.

"When we started the vivero with just a few plants it didn't matter but we have to pay for staff and materials and the only money we make is from the entrance fees."

Out of season, few visitors make the trip to this lost domain, where the greenhouses are kept upright with string and ingenuity while Mr Flores struggles to assist Pablo, Mr Mittelstaedt's grandson, in maintaining the place. He said: "We have no laboratory here, everything we do, we do by hand, and I continue to do it because Don Otto was more than just the patron, he was a good friend and this was his passion.

"He and I would spend hours in the forests looking for new species and I can't bear to think that all those years of work could just go to waste. When coffee prices were good it didn't matter because it subsidised the vivero but now the market has collapsed the whole area is suffering."

In the middle of one of the long rows of tiny pieces of bark - each one containing an orchid smaller than a five pence piece - he stops and bashfully points to a label next to the plant. "I found this one [in a nearby forest]," he said of Lepanthes Juanii.

"Now most of that forest is gone. The biggest threat to the orchids is deforestation. It breaks my heart to see how much has been cut over the years. We only want to sell what we grow ourselves, but the timber mafia just come in and cut down the trees that belong to everybody. This is what globalisation means for Guatemala."