The Lost Slipper

In 2004, a top Seattle gardener acquired one of the most breathtaking orchid specimens she had ever seen. But at the Volunteer Park Conservatory—a magnet for plant thieves—this orchid never stood a chance.

By Roger Brooks January 4, 2009 Published in the April 2008 issue of Seattle Met

THE FLOWER WITH THE RETINA-BURNING pinks and the bright yellow center was on display at Volunteer Park Conservatory for just one day. Attractive, yes, but you’d never guess it was a rare, award-winning specimen, an orchid so cherished as to be named after the conservatory’s senior gardener, Stephanie Johnson-Toliver. Patrons who waded through the conservatory’s humid, musty air to catch a glimpse of the orchid that day were lucky. Less than 24 hours later the orchid would vanish from public view forever, stolen from a conservatory staff that loved—yes, loved—the plant, leaving Johnson-Toliver with a heavy heart, and nothing but a muddy footprint for a clue.

Larry Boyce’s Northgate house is filled with woven tapestries, hand-carved stone figures, and other trinkets from his travels to more than 70 countries. He’s worked as a teacher in Ghana, Germany, and other parts of the world. In Seattle he’s simply Orchid Larry—the affable, gray-haired man far more concerned with donating his time at the conservatory than tending to his faded clothes or the salt-and-pepper stubble dotting his chin. His enclosed sunroom has been home to hundreds of orchids—_Paphiopedilums_, cattleyas, and various hybrids.

In 2002 he toured Hawaii’s Big Island in search of new specimens for his collection, especially “natural crosses” (hybrid orchids that have cross-pollinated naturally). He’s not known as Orchid Larry for nothing—the man can talk orchids, and that opened the doors to some of Hawaii’s best orchid nurseries, many of them with private greenhouses filled with hard-to-find plants for big spenders and knowledgeable collectors.

He bought a community pot of young but established Paphiopedilum Gloria Naugle orchids and shipped it back to Seattle. The Paphiopedilum genus, also known as Paphs or slipper orchids, includes more than 70 species, most from southern Asia. The lips of the bloom resemble a lady’s slipper and are the orchid’s defining characteristic. The slipper traps pollen-carrying insects, forcing them (and their pollen) past the plant’s stamen, ensuring pollination. Because Paphs grow well in relatively low light and moderate temperatures and humidity, they make popular houseplants. There are thousands of hybrids, bred to create new color combinations, bigger slippers, and longer-lasting blooms.

Boyce placed the new Paphs in his sunroom and essentially forgot about them. But in midspring of 2004, the orchids began to bloom. One of the flowers in particular grabbed his attention. Its petals and slipper were large and perfectly shaped; the bloom’s symmetry was rivaled only by its vibrant hot pink and yellow-striped coloring. Orchid Larry didn’t know what he had yet, but he knew it was exceptional. He had to show it off, and he knew just the place.

The Northwest Orchid Society is one of the largest regional chapters of the American Orchid Society. Its members are as eclectic as the thousands of orchid species they follow. Some, like Orchid Larry, are eccentric singles who own hundreds of plants. Others are parents with young kids who only have time for a few select favorites. Almost all of them are obsessed. On the second Monday of every month, they convene at the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington to talk shop, show off their orchids, and trade and sell plants to each other and curious guests.

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Orchid Larry brought his blossoming Paph to an NWOS meeting in the spring of 2004. The plant caught the eye of several members, one of whom recognized it as the hybrid Gloria Naugle. They looked it up in the AOS catalog to verify the match. “They said, ‘Your flower looks better in shape and substance and size than the original hybrid,’” Boyce recalls. “Well, what do I do with it?”

He already knew the answer. Orchid Larry loves the Volunteer Park Conservatory. Visitors pay nothing to enter the almost century-old Victorian greenhouse inspired by London’s famed Crystal Palace. More than 3,400 panes of glass surround the conservatory’s collection of cacti, bromeliads, palms, native specimens, and, of course, orchids. Boyce volunteers at the conservatory’s plant sales and offers to work with the orchids whenever they need him. He donated the orchid, along with a few of its better-performing siblings, to senior gardener Stephanie Johnson-Toliver—a gift to her and the conservatory.

Gifts like this, and the large existing collection of plants, have made the conservatory a favorite target among thieves. The year 2003 had been especially bad. Someone routinely stole plants and shrubs from the service yard, and someone was bold enough to roll up a cart to load during the night. Johnson-Toliver brought in the police, who advised her to put up “No Trespassing” signs, making it a felony for anyone to enter without permission. The police also installed a tripwire near the area. A few nights later, the wire was tripped. Officers descended on the suspect, who bolted toward the perimeter fence that separates the conservatory from Volunteer Park Cemetery. The perpetrator leapt over the fence and disappeared in the maze of grave markers.

Johnson-Toliver put in the surveillance equipment, locked more gates, and became more watchful. Believing the plant cages to be a strong deterrent, she didn’t worry about anyone stealing orchids from inside the conservatory.

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver is the driving force behind the Volunteer Park Conservatory. Clad in her signature apron and shovel-and-pitchfork earrings, she zips around the conservatory designing elaborate orchid displays one minute and plowing through mundane paperwork the next. She’s been a gardener at the 96-year-old Seattle institution for more than 28 years, 22 as its senior gardener. But she’s been coming to the conservatory for much longer. When she was eight, she and her grandmother would walk to the park and spend hours looking at the exotic plants and koi. Two decades later, Johnson-Toliver came to the conservatory to work under senior gardener Tosh Kiyonaga, who had already been at the conservatory for 30 years and built its collection of orchids. Kiyonaga had no formal training in growing orchids; he cared for them instinctively, predicting when plants would need less light, more humidity, or repotting. Eventually he invited Johnson-Toliver into the orchid greenhouse and began teaching her how to care for the plants. For five years, she learned as much as she could from her mentor. When he retired in 1983, he left the conservatory and its collection of thousands of orchids—his legacy—in her trust.

She talks about the flowers as though they’re her children. “Of course, as with other plants, there are fussy ones,” she says. “There are some that want attention, want friends. They just want you to talk to them every day. And then there are ones that, once a month, you pat them on the back and that’s all they need.” When Patricia Ward, who now handles day-to-day care of the orchids, had trouble getting one plant to bloom, Johnson-Toliver stood by silently, letting Ward try different methods to coax the orchid into producing a flower. Only after Ward had exhausted her own ideas did Johnson-Toliver step in. “She said, ‘I think it needs a little more light.’

All I did was move it a little, and six months later it started blooming,” Ward explains.

“I’ve never worked with anyone who is so devoted to what she does,” says David Helgeson, a gardener who has worked with Johnson-Toliver for 19 years. “I know she expects that of us as well, and it’s a good thing because people really rise to that standard.”

These days Johnson-Toliver functions more like an executive than a gardener, developing new educational programs and constantly struggling with a shrinking budget. She still creates all the orchid displays herself, posing them to show off texture and color. If an orchid gives off a powerful scent, she may put it under a vent whooshing air toward the aisle—to help visitors interact with the flowers. “She’ll just move a fern or turn the orchid a certain way or maybe put it up a little higher,” Ward explains, “and you’ll say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

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The plant Orchid Larry gave to Johnson-Toliver might have been lost in the conservatory’s forest of orchids had it not been for Al Mysiewicz. Like Boyce, Mysiewicz is an NWOS member and orchid grower. He was volunteering in the orchid house when the plant arrived. “When he saw the bloom he was just blown away,” Johnson-Toliver remembers. Mysiewicz asked if he could take the plant to Tacoma, where the American Orchid Society would soon convene to evaluate exceptional orchids. Only a handful of the plants at the show are judged by experts who use scorecards tailored to each genus. Johnson-Toliver’s orchid was one of a few selected for judging that day. “I knew it got awarded…because they started measuring it and writing descriptions,” Mysiewicz says. “I wasn’t surprised.”

The Paph received the American Orchid Society’s Award of Merit. The judges also surmised that the specimen had produced the largest bloom ever recorded for a Paphiopedilum Gloria Naugle hybrid. Mysiewicz took the plant back to the conservatory late that Saturday afternoon. The gardeners had all gone home, so he left it near Johnson-Toliver’s office with an understated note: Her orchid needed a new identifying placard.

The flower’s symmetry was rivaled only by its vibrant coloring. Orchid Larry didn’t know what he had yet, but he knew it was exceptional.

Orchid Larry also had a change to make. Hybrids that receive an Award of Merit must include a unique name when catalogued. As a lasting legacy to Johnson-Toliver, Boyce christened the orchid Paphiopedilum Gloria Naugle ‘Stephanie’.

The prized orchid remained out of public view in the back greenhouses for several days. Johnson-Toliver and her staff admired and fussed over it, but keeping it hidden away nagged at her. Young orchids are notorious for not blooming regularly, and Johnson—Toliver couldn’t stand the thought of depriving conservatory visitors of the chance to see the new acquisition in full bloom. She took ‘Stephanie’ to the orchid house—the entry room of the conserva-tory—and displayed it on a pedestal in the corner, surrounded by ferns and deep inside the locked cage.
The cage’s metal frame rises up from the planting beds; braided-metal wires crisscross in a lattice separating the plants from groping hands. The orchid’s plaque noted its new name, but said nothing about its award-winning status. To a novice’s eye, it was just another stunning bloom in a room full of flowering orchids.

Sometime during business hours late the following day, with the sun shining and visitors coming and going through the conservatory doors, Johnson-Toliver’s legacy disappeared. The void behind the locked display cage stopped her in her tracks. She retreated to the growing house, where gardeners take display plants if they begin to look ragged or lose their petals. Nothing. There was no one to ask about the orchid; all the other gardeners had gone home for the day. Johnson-Toliver returned to the locked cage, hoping she’d just missed the plant. That’s when she noticed the footprint. A small muddy track stood out on the white windowsill behind the display cage. Johnson-Toliver’s heart sank.

A day later, Al Mysiewicz’s answering machine was blinking. He hit play to hear Patricia Ward’s voice asking him to call her back, no matter the hour. Ward, who was on vacation at the time, had received a call from Johnson-Toliver a few hours earlier. ‘Stephanie’ was gone. Mysiewicz alerted NWOS members at the next meeting and urged attendees at the next judging in Tacoma to be on the lookout for the lost orchid.

Johnson-Toliver kept busy too. She checked the conservatory’s security cameras—installed after the conservatory laid off the grave-yard-shift gardener, who previously acted as watchman. All the cameras were in perfect working order the day of the theft, save one. “There were so many things that happened that didn’t allow us to see the face of the person,” she laments. “The camera wasn’t working… I thought it was, but it wasn’t.”

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Without a key, the only possible entry into the cage was through a 16-inch gap between the edge of the cage and the windows behind the bedding area. Only a very thin person could hoist themselves onto the table and squeeze through the opening to reach ‘Stephanie’. Johnson-Toliver had commissioned the refurbishment of the 30-year-old cages a decade earlier, but dismissed extending them to the wall as an unnecessary expense. The muddy footprint on the windowsill mocked her decision.

Around the conservatory she mounted wanted posters that included a photo of the orchid bloom and information about the theft. She filed a police report and red-flagged the plant with the other orchid society chapters and the American Orchid Society. If someone tried to sell ‘Stephanie’ through normal channels, chances are Johnson-Toliver would find out about it.

One person Johnson-Toliver didn’t want to talk to was Orchid Larry. “He gave it to me, and I was the one that was supposed to protect it. I was the one that was supposed to care for it,” she says. “And then it slips through my fingers and it’s gone.” Boyce was moved to tears by the sadness he saw in Johnson-Toliver’s face when she told him. He promised to find her something, another orchid even better than ‘Stephanie’.

Officers descended on the suspect, who bolted toward the cemetery. The perpetrator leapt over the fence and disappeared in the maze of grave markers.

The next afternoon, Johnson-Toliver walked through the conservatory, stopping to tend to plants here and there. As she passed by the front door, she noticed that the wanted poster she had tacked up was gone. She looked around—all the posters were missing. The thief had struck again.

She tried to piece together how someone could walk into the conservatory in broad daylight, slip through a narrow gap in a locked cage, walk the length of the bedding tray, take the orchid, and get out undetected. She and the other gardeners were in the conservatory almost every morning, checking displays and attending to plants. Later they would all retreat to the growing houses in back to care for the conservatory’s thousands of plants currently off display. Johnson-Toliver formed a theory. “It was someone who watched our [patterns] and knew what that particular orchid was and what it meant,” she says. “They didn’t take anything else.”

After the theft, Johnson-Toliver extended the locked cages to the wall, closing the 16-inch gap. She had new digitally monitored cameras installed. She mixes up her schedule and greets visitors more often, and instructs the other gardeners to vary the times they are in the conservatory.

Even with the heightened security, thieves still manage to walk away with small plants from time to time, usually blocking the cameras from recording their faces and crimes. Johnson-Toliver always files police reports, but no one has been caught.

It’s been almost four years since ‘Stephanie’ was plucked from the conservatory. At the time, only a handful of NWOS members, people present at the judging in Tacoma, and the conservatory gardeners knew the award-winning orchid existed. Orchid growers are notoriously obsessive about their plants. Enthusiasts have gone into government-protected forests to take new specimens, stealing what they cannot buy. Some have even died in search of the next rare orchid. There’s no doubt in the minds of almost everyone interviewed for this story that the person who took ‘Stephanie’ knew exactly what they were taking. “You wouldn’t even know what it was about unless you were in the inner circle or an orchid collector…an addict, an enthusiast,” Johnson-Toliver says.

Thanks to tags used by major international orchid societies to track the sale of illegal plants, it would be next to impossible for the thief to sell ‘Stephanie’ on the open market. The orchid is most likely sitting in a private collection or being bred, passing on its prize-winning genes. Any new plant registered with the major orchid societies would have to include a history of its parentage. In theory this would prevent anyone from breeding ‘Stephanie’ for profit, but Johnson-Toliver says there are literally thousands of new hybrids registered every year.

Tracking the theft of one, even a specimen as spectacular as ‘Stephanie’, isn’t a priority.
For Johnson-Toliver, it’s hard not to take the theft personally. In spite of the time passed, she still catches herself thinking about the lost orchid. And she hasn’t completely given up the hope that she’ll see it again. “If [the thief] just brought it back and set it on the doorstep—I’d probably faint, but I would love to be able to get it back into the collection,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of highlights working here for 28 years and a lot of really wonderful experiences, but this was up there. To lose it was very hurtful.”

A few months ago Johnson-Toliver was busy changing the orchid displays. Her work cart was next to her, littered with clippers, scissors, ties, and spilled dirt. The cages were closed, but unlocked. Someone called her away with a quick question; she was gone only a few minutes. When she returned, another orchid—a beautiful burgundy-petaled Paphiopedilum, the same genus as ‘Stephanie’—was gone. The cameras revealed the thief, a regular visitor who often stopped to speak with Johnson-Toliver. The police are working closely with Johnson-Toliver on this latest theft. She does not believe the woman stole ‘Stephanie’.

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