For years I’ve been promising myself that when I’m in my dotage, housebound and no longer able to run around like I do now, I shall grow orchids. It’s something I’ve always fancied doing. However, I’m now having second thoughts, having read Susan Orlean’s account of all things orchid related in Florida, USA. Although, let’s face it, I don’t see orchid growing in Cape Town, South Africa, being one-hundredth as exciting as orchid growing in America.
It’s an extraordinary book. No wonder it featured on the New York Times Bestseller list – I’ve never read anything like it in the non-fiction category. And by the way, difficult to believe it is non-fiction. The book is hot, steamy, lush and colourful just like the Florida Keys where some of the events (I nearly said ‘action’) takes place. Throw in the local Florida Seminole Indians who claim rights to anything on their tribal land i.e. the muddy, gator infested swamps, where orchids flourish. Add a band of orchid thieves, smugglers, growers and collectors, add a few adjectives like: manic , obsessive, passionate, and conniving and you’ve got my liveliest non-fiction read of 2015.
From early 1800s to the close of the 19th century, the heyday of orchid hunting and collecting, the chapter is titled “A Mortal Occupation”, aptly titled, because the casualties were legion. Orchid hunting in the jungles of South America and Asia was perilous, ruthless, dangerous, life-threatening. If not from tropical disease, dangerous wildlife, hostile inhabitants then there were the other orchid hunters to contend with. Many of the exploits of the orchid hunters read like episodes from an Indiana Jones adventures.
A Victorian orchid Grower, living in Britain Frederick Sander, was ruthlessly competitive. He employed professional orchid hunters who routinely gave up their lives to fuel his passion. His chief adversary was a German collector Carl Robelin, and these two Victorian orchid hunters went to extraordinary lengths to secure rare plants.
That old buccaneering, adventuring attitude to orchid collection appears to live on in the world of orchids. The 21st century orchid scene is rife with burglaries, swindles, and shenanigans which would fit well into any of Carl Hiaasen’s Florida crime novels.
Who knew such beautiful flowers generated such passion, such criminality? Who knew that modern orchid shows attract orchid fanatics, some of whom are millionaires; some of whom bankrupt themselves in pursuit of their passion? At its height, in Europe, mid 1800s, the orchid craze surpassed the Dutch tulip craze of centuries ago.
Maybe I’d better start my orchid growing project now, whilst I’m still strong enough to fight off rival collectors?
Don’t miss this book: its hugely entertaining and informative. The book is not that recent, it was published in 1998, but it’s worth hunting down. (In the true spirit of orchid collecting!)