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Wild orchids take him on a 20-year quest

LANCASTER - In an upstairs room at the North Museum in Lancaster, Mark Larocque is throwing around more Latin names than spells in a Harry Potter movie.

LANCASTER - In an upstairs room at the North Museum in Lancaster, Mark Larocque is throwing around more Latin names than spells in a Harry Potter movie.

Larocque, who recently moved his environmental-consulting business from Chester County to outside Quarryville, is regaling the Muhlenberg Botanical Society with colorful slides of wild orchids he has tracked down in the West.

He has gone to great lengths to find the elusive plants, driving and hiking into the Chisos Mountains of southern Texas and the fringe of a lake in Alaska. He has visited the Sierra Nevadas in California, the Rockies in Montana, the Siskyous range in Oregon, and Nevada's Death Valley.

He has sought not just to find the orchids, but to reach the temperamental flowers during the narrow window of time in which they bloom. Some go years without blooming. When they do, it's usually for just a few days and only at certain times of day.

Outside Big Bend National Park in Texas, with few humans within 100 miles, his car was totaled when struck by another vehicle at a remote intersection. An ambulance drove the three orchid hunters an hour to the nearest town, where a Dairy Queen soda jerk shuttled them in a cramped car, for $150, an additional 21/2 hours to the airport in El Paso.

But Larocque got the two orchids he was looking for, Dierygne confusa and Dichromanthus cinnabarina, after a 13-mile hike through 100-degree heat.

In the Everglades in Florida, Larocque had to spray insect repellent in the air just to buy a few seconds to shoot an orchid before mosquitoes swarmed the camera lens.

Over the last 20 years, Larocque has photographed - in bloom - 235 of the 255 known orchids growing in the United States and Canada.

Among them are 60 native orchids that grow in Pennsylvania, about two dozen in Lancaster County.

His photographs have appeared in journals and orchid publications all over the country. He is one of only a handful of people to photograph several of the orchids.

Though he calls himself an orchid "enthusiast" rather than an expert, he serves on the board of the Native Orchid Conference, a national group of orchid enthusiasts, and gives talks on orchids at places such as Longwood Gardens.

In the 1998 best-seller The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, the protagonist is John Laroche, an outlaw plant dealer who gets caught trying to steal wild orchids in a south Florida swamp. The names are strikingly similar: Laroche, Larocque.

Larocque, who grew up on Cape Cod, does not know Laroche, though he knows the park rangers who arrested him and visits the same alligator- and snake-laden swamps where Laroche tried to pilfer ghost orchids.

Like Larocque, Laroche, the thief, began his obsession with orchids with an infatuation: to photograph every single species of orchid in Florida in bloom. But that wasn't enough, and Laroche began collecting the flowers.

Larocque, too, collects orchids, though he says he has no intention of ever becoming an orchid thief.

In his new home on 22 wooded acres on a ridge above Quarryville, Larocque has an 864-square-foot glass greenhouse where he grows and sometimes hand-pollinates more than 400 species of orchids from such places as the foothills of the Himalayas, Thailand, and the Caribbean. Some are extinct in the wild.

Everything is automated, from the misting system to heat - 90 degrees during the day, 60 at night.

Larocque's affair with orchids began while he was a biology major at the University of Massachusetts. A couple of professors he admired got him hooked on the science of plant taxonomy. He started photographing rare plants and quickly settled on orchids.

Why orchids? Why not daffodils? Larocque was asked.

"Just because of the variety," he replied. "Most flowers have petals, but orchids have such a shape variety."

Orchids are considered the most highly evolved flowering plants on Earth, different from any other plant family.

No one is sure why they come in so many amazing forms. Some are microscopic, some are six feet tall. Some don't even look like flowers. Some resemble a dog with its tongue sticking out. One looks like an onion, others like an octopus, human nose, shoes, Mickey Mouse, a monkey.

Some look like insects to attract bugs for pollination. Some release perfumes.

All are parasites. Many grow in fungi, but some tropical "air" orchids dangle from a tree branch or rock, absorbing rainwater and decaying leaves. Orchids might be considered ugly when not in bloom, which is most of the time.

They also are considered the sexiest flowers on the planet.

It was long thought that orchids sprang from the spilled semen of mating animals, and there were warnings that growing them would make one succumb to lust.

Larocque knows nothing of that, but the first half of his honeymoon was spent searching for orchids in a floating bog in Maine.

He tracks down orchids on his life list by researching herbarium lists, contacting local sources, and talking to land managers - many of the orchids are on public lands.

Much of the time, he makes his forays while on work trips paving the way for cell phone towers and wind turbines.

When he began his photographic quest two decades ago, he intended to eventually publish a coffee-table book of all the orchids in North America, updating the seminal work on the subject from the 1970s.

The book would give a history of each orchid, as well as updated status reports and the habitats in which the flowers now are found.

He still intends to do that, though his consulting business has slowed the mission.

He has yet to point his lens at three species in Hawaii, two on top of Alaska's Aleutian range, several in California, a couple in Colorado, and a couple in Florida. There's a species discovered only last year in Yosemite National Park.

"It's been a 20-year odyssey," he says.

It's a lifelong passion that any orchid lover would understand.