South Coast Orchid Society

Featured Speaker Profile:
Peter Tobias
(April 22, 2019)

The idea of developing a way to fund orchid conservation projects grew out of discussions among the members of the San Diego County Orchid Society, around 1990. Soon a Conservation Committee was formed. Peter Tobias was its first chairman. A plan was put into motion by the committee members to raise funds by selling some of their excess plants. The first sale, in 1991, succeeded so well, that the program has continued to this day. Seeking to extend the reach of these efforts, Peter created a spin-off, the Orchid Conservation Alliance, an all-volunteer organization with no paid staff, but with a clear mission. Peter has since retired from his position as Associate Professor of Immunology at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

We found Peter manning the OCA booth at the October, 2018 Huntington show

You will often find Peter at the big orchid events, happy to explain what OCA has been doing. The Alliance now has dozens of affiliated societies and hundreds of individual members. They have been able to leverage donations to support a number of projects in South America, as well as putting conservation on the agenda of orchid lovers everywhere.

The Alliance takes great pains to select projects that have a high probability of long-term success. Anyone who has spent time in Latin America will have encountered stories of endless legal squabbles about land ownership. In some place, even squatters have successfully claimed ownership rights. OCA has persisted in spite of all the obstacles. Partners have been found for funding, procuring property, and establishing long-term management. In other words, money is one ingredient, but conserving orchids in the wild involves a lot more than money. Peter and OCA have proved that orchid conservation is feasible even without huge resources, and they have developed a process to make it happen.

Dichaea sp., a cute little orchid from El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, Chiapas, Mexico

Peter’s talk will briefly describe the goals and methods of the OCA, focusing primarily on the Selva de Ventanas reserve in Colombia, and then show pictures from one of the OCA’s recent tours to Chiapas, Mexico.

Peter receives the OD Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service.

At the June 9, 2018 Orchid Digest Speakers’ Day, Dr. Harold Koopowitz, Vice President of the Orchid Digest Corporation, announced that the Publication Committee had selected Peter Tobias, founder and President of the Orchid Conservation Alliance, for the prestigious Orchid Digest Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service to the Orchid World, for his efforts and those of the OCA to create protected reserves where wild orchids can continue to live and blossom.

Peter started growing orchids on a Chicago windowsill in the mid-1970’s with a white Phalaenopsis. His interest grew when a friend helped him to import some plants from India and Brazil so that he got a sense of the variety of orchids out there; an Ornithocephalus or a Dendrochilum is a lot different from a phalaenopsis. Ever since then he has enjoyed collecting and trying to grow odd species. Orchid growing became a lot easier when he moved to Southern California in 1980 and joined the San Diego County Orchid Society; the majority of his collection is now grown outdoors.

Peter and his award-winning Arpophyllum giganteum at the 2015 spring show in San Diego. A well-named plant, it's one of the most noticeable orchids in the mountain forests of Chiapas, Mexico when it's in bloom. It looks harmless enough as a small division when you find it at Andy's Orchids, but just wait a few years!