Thou Shalt not Covet thy Neighbor’s Orchid

By Clement Kent


Some readers may remember a series of columns I wrote a few years ago titled "The Dark Side of Gardening". I recall centering one column around a Nero Wolfe story about murder at an orchid show.

I enjoyed writing those brief pieces far more than any number of helpful, useful, pragmatic garden advice articles. It appears I was not alone. Recently, in one of those quirks of synchronicity that amuse me so, two non-fiction books have been published on the wonderfully weird world of orchid enthusiasts.


I enjoyed reading "Orchid Fever" by Eric Hansen and recommend it to all kindred spirits ($35 hardcover, Pantheon Books, 2000). Its subtitle "A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy" says it all. Mr. Hansen is better known as a writer in that subgenre of travel books where the author travels rough in wild parts (Motoring with Mohammed, Stranger in the Forest) and has a style which owes more to Redmond O’Hanlon and Dervla Murphy than to Christopher Lloyd and Rosemary Verey. His interest in orchids began when he tried to find a way for his friends, the Penan tribespeople of Borneo, to make a living in their radically disrupted forests. His idea was to teach them to rescue rare and endangered plants such as orchids from forests being clearcut and grow them in nurseries for sales to collectors around the world. From this noble beginning came an increasingly labyrinthine detour into the strange and surprising world of orchid fanciers themselves.

Orchid Fever is one of those books you must discover for yourself - I would be doing you a disservice were I to give you more than the barest hints of what you will find there. Suffice it to say that sleaze, noble dedication, obsession, scientific analysis, international manhunts, massive thefts from innocent victims by government officials, fox testicle ice cream, and many other diversions await you. I cannot however resist one quote. A commercial orchid grower’s comment begins the book thus:

"You can get off alcohol, drugs, women, food, and cars, but once you’re hooked on orchids, you’re finished. You never get off orchids-never."

Some might assume that it is customary for a reviewer to have read the book being reviewed. This is, however, a naïve assumption. Some professional book reviewers have perfected speed skimming to such an extent that it cannot be called "reading". If you are amusing enough, and fish out a few good quotes from the book under review, you can often escape detection. The main thing is to avoid actually talking about the book itself. This I shall achieve most wondrously completely for my second book candidate, "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean (Random House, 1999, $25 US).

While I fully intend to read the book (someday), I can do no better than to refer you to the New York Times review by Ted Conover which appeared Jan 3, 1999. For those who don’t happen to have a ten foot high stack of moldering copies of the Times in the basement, the review can be read online at Mr. Conover did a much better job than I could do (especially as he seems actually to have read the book!) To quote him:

"What emerges finally as the book's true subject is the monomania of collectors. As Orlean meets and sizes up a cast of characters that is downright English in its eccentricity, she comments: ''It seemed as if there were hundreds and hundreds of people who were wrapped up in their special passion for the natural world.""

What better description of our own dear Hort members could one find than "people ... wrapped up in their special passion for the natural world"? Read both books if you can, and laugh along with the authors at the amazing eccentrics described-some of whom may be your fellow gardeners.


Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t