If you ever thought gardening, or plants in general, was boring, the world of orchids will come as a great surprise. I grew up in a household where gardening was a creative passion – both my parents spend long and mostly happy hours in the garden, or planning the garden, or discussing the garden – and still, the very idea of orchids being exciting was a shock. Susan Orlean was equally shocked, but also curious, and she explores the history of orchid hunting and the flower’s modern culture in her book The Orchid Thief.
The book – which began as an article for The New Yorker, where Orlean is a staff writer – begins with the story of John Laroche, the titular orchid thief. Laroche is the reason Orlean discovered the world of orchids in the first place. As she explains, his story caught her eye when she saw a small story in a newspaper about four men arrested for orchid poaching.
Generally speaking, animals get poached. People go around the world in search of rare animals to kill and display – either as clothing, in the case of alligator skin shoes and bags or fur coats, or on walls as strange taxidermied art, or sometimes to eat, in the case of shark fin or turtle soup. It turns out, though, that orchids and many other kinds of rare tropical plants are incredibly valuable on the black market. And the history of their value goes back to the 18th century when wealthy men became obsessed with collecting orchids.
Personally, I have never been that entranced by orchids. Sure, they’re lovely and all, but until reading The Orchid Thief I couldn’t even begin to understand the attraction. But Orlean, after months of research time spent in Florida (the capital of the American orchid industry and where Laroche lives), is able to describe some truly alluring flowers. There are thousands of different kinds of orchids, all with various colours and slightly different petal and formations and textures, and just enough contrariness to make growing them an obsessive and all-encompassing endeavour.
Orlean’s starting point is Laroche, but the real story in this delightful piece of non-fiction is flower itself. The through-line often moves away from Laroche (although it always returns to him) into the wider world of plant crime, the historical precedent for orchid hunting, and the many characters who run the nurseries in southern Florida. She also managed to weave in a history of the Seminoles, a through-line about her personal hunt for the ghost orchid and an overview of Florida as a state. Suffice to say, she packs a lot into this book.
Orlean has a way of making both the characters and the landscapes she describes spring off the page so that you can feel the sticky swamp mud under your feet, and hear the slow but impassioned drawl of the man showing her around one of his greenhouses. On the one had, she didn’t have to make these characters up, but she did have to capture them and translate their vitality and unusual passions from the world of orchid nurseries – where they fit in 100 per cent – to the black and white of the page and the world of readers who have likely never experienced anything like their level of desire for anything. And really, she does an amazing job.
If I were asked before I read this book if I was interested in orchids, I probably would have offered a non-committal answer accompanied by a half-shrug. Now, though, I know better. Nothing in the world of orchid lovers is non-committal. Besides, after the rollicking education Orlean offers up, I now know that flowers, and the culture that springs up around and because of them, are far more than the sum of their parts.
The Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean
First published in 1998 (cover image shown from Ballantine Books edition)