Orchid expert who started Selby Botanical Gardens, dies at 97

Dr. Carlyle Luer gave up a medical practice to pursue his orchid obsession.
Dr. Carlyle Luer and his wife Jane  with an orchid in Ecuador, one of the many countries where they searched for the flowers. Luer, co-founder of Marie Selby Botanitcal Gardens in Sarasota, died Nov. 9 at age 97. Photo courtesy of Selby Gardens. Courtesy of Selby Gardens
Dr. Carlyle Luer and his wife Jane with an orchid in Ecuador, one of the many countries where they searched for the flowers. Luer, co-founder of Marie Selby Botanitcal Gardens in Sarasota, died Nov. 9 at age 97. Photo courtesy of Selby Gardens. Courtesy of Selby Gardens
Published November 18
Updated November 18

A single flower changed Carlyle Luer’s life.

He started out as a prominent doctor in Sarasota, as likely to pop up in the society column as in the operating room. His patients were rich and well-known, including the famed circus clown Emmett Kelly.

But then, in 1957, someone showed Dr. Luer a ghost orchid. Nothing was the same after that. He became an avid orchid collector, the author of two landmark books on native orchids and then in 1971 he co-founded Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota. He died Nov. 9 at age 97, still hard at work on orchid studies, still a celebrity among orchid fanciers.

“It’s still a magic name,” said Paul Martin Brown, the author of Wild Orchids of Florida as well as guides to native orchids in the other 49 states and Canada.

Dr. Luer was born in Alton, Ill., the son of a meatpacking plant owner. His family was friends with another prominent family, the Pfeiffenbergers. When Jane Pfeiffenberger’s appendix burst, he went to visit her in the hospital. A day later, Dr. Luer’s own appendix burst and he wound up in a room near hers. He began tapping on the pipes to communicate with her. Eventually, they married, according their son, Carl Luer.

Dr. Luer earned his medical degree from Washington University in St. Louis and served as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Austria. In 1953 he moved his family to Sarasota because that’s where his father had retired, his son said.

He was Sarasota’s first board-certified surgeon, and his practice thrived. But once he saw the ghost orchid, he had a new passion. He was fascinated by the bloom, which, he wrote, "resembles the ghoulish ghost of a frog leaping in mid-air.”

RELATED: Ghost orchid photos are first to show pollination.

He and Jane were astounded to learn that this bizarre bloom grew wild in the Florida swamps. They decided to seek one out, wading into the Fakahatchee Strand near Naples, undeterred by the tracks of bears and panthers.

“Should one be lucky enough to see a flower, all else will seem eclipsed,” Dr. Luer wrote, in a passage later featured in the movie Adaptation starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep.

RELATED: To see a ghost orchid, go to this Florida swamp.

Finding that first wild orchid led to a search for others, and then to a determination to photograph every native orchid in Florida. That project took him 12 years. He usually brought the whole family along to search for them.

“Every weekend we would pile into a station wagon and drive to all different locations around Florida — up to Jacksonville and the Panhandle or down to the Keys — on what he called his ‘orchid hunts,' " his son said. “We ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the road.” They also found a lot of mosquitoes, he said.

In 1972, those searches led to a groundbreaking and lavishly illustrated book, The Native Orchids of Florida. Dr. Luer followed that up with an even more ambitious book: The Native Orchids of the United States and Canada, published in 1975.

Those works “piqued the interest of more than half the people who are interested in native orchids now,” Brown said.

By this time one of Luer’s wealthiest patients had died. Marie Selby, the childless widow of oil-rich Bill Selby, had spent hours cultivating a rose garden at their waterfront mansion, which was also the meeting place for the Sarasota Garden Club.

Mrs. Selby’s will dictated that the home be turned into a botanical garden, open to the public. Dr. Luer liked the idea, but not if it benefited something so pedestrian as roses. On a visit to the executor of the estate, he pitched the idea of focusing on orchids, something no other botanical garden had done.

“I twisted his arm,” the normally mild-mannered Luer said in a 2010 interview.

Dr. Luer shuttered his medical practice and took charge of creating Selby Gardens. He brought in botanists from the University of Florida to advise on building greenhouses, flew to Ecuador to hire the first executive director, even donated his own orchid collection as a starter crop.

By then his “orchid hunts” had gone beyond what he could reach via station wagon. He and his wife would venture into places like the jungles of Colombia despite the threat of violence from drug cartels, their son said. Once, he said, they caught the last helicopter out of Bolivia before a revolution.

Dr. Luer survived all those risky trips, his son said, but a slip on his kitchen’s terrazzo floor last month led to complications that caused his death. Even on his death bed, though, he continued dictating information for an orchid publication, his son said.

“His mind was working right up to the end,” he said.

Selby Gardens now attracts 170,000 visitors a year, and serves as both a tourist attraction and a scientific institution, displaying thousands of orchids and other plants. The current president, Jennifer Rominiecki, issued a statement mourning Dr. Luer’s passing and saluting his contributions to botany.

She mentioned that Dr. Luer had named and described 3,000 different species of orchids. His son said that he had a reputation as the most prolific taxonomist in the history of orchid research. But he did not name a single one of those orchids after himself.

“My dad was probably the most humble man I ever knew,” he said.

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Dr. Carlyle Luer

Born: Aug. 23, 1922

Died: Nov. 9, 2019

Survivors: His wife, Jane Pfeiffenberger Luer; daughter Ann Skipper of Sarasota; sons Carl of Sarasota, William of New Orleans, George of Sarasota, and Albert of Melbourne, Fla.; and his 12 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Services: Nothing scheduled yet, but in lieu of flowers, the family asks you donate to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

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