Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet WormsHorseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms
by Richard Fortey
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780307275530
Publication Date: December 11, 2012
Pages: 332
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Vintage Books

Evolution, it seems, has not completely obliterated its tracks as more advanced organisms have evolved; the history of life on earth is far older—and odder—than many of us realize.

Scattered across the globe, these remarkable plants and animals continue to mark seminal events in geological time. From a moonlit beach in Delaware, where the hardy horseshoe crab shuffles its way to a frenzy of mass mating just as it did 450 million years ago, to the dense rainforests of New Zealand, where the elusive, unprepossessing velvet worm has burrowed deep into rotting timber since before the breakup of the ancient supercontinent, to a stretch of Australian coastline with stromatolite formations that bear witness to the Precambrian dawn, the existence of these survivors offers us a tantalizing glimpse of pivotal points in evolutionary history. These are not “living fossils” but rather a handful of tenacious creatures of days long gone.

Written in buoyant, sparkling prose, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is a marvelously captivating exploration of the world’s old-timers combining the very best of science writing with an explorer’s sense of adventure and wonder.


This ended up with 4 stars because I struggle with timelines that stretch over billions of years.  I find the science riveting, but when the text starts throwing around Ages and Periods like Cretaceous and Mesozoic and Mesoproterozoic like we’d talk about events that happened to us last week, my eyes glaze over and my comprehension rate plummets through the floor.

Still Fortey deserves better; he’s an excellent writer, one who mixes personal anecdotes with hard science very well.  He only slipped up once and made evolution sound like a sentient decision making process on the part of the specimen in question, but perhaps he was only making a point.

In this book he visits a list of life (flora, fauna, and microscopic) whose branch on the tree of life has survived the ages, evolving through catastrophic events only to wind up in the here and now, where humans will likely figure out a way to kill them off.  Except, sadly, for the cockroaches, and, happily, the sea monkeys.  He ties these fascinating species of today to their ancestors of the past and discusses where current thinking places them on the tree of life: are they closer to the trunk (truly amongst the first) or are they closer to the tips of the branches (the newcomers, or – in our case – the party crashers).

This is one of those books that, because of their built-in uniqueness in flora and fauna, the antipodean part of the world becomes the star.  There are a lot of critters featured here that are found in New Zealand and Australia.  Not taking anything away from my home country, these were my favourites.  I need to be on the lookout for the velvet worm, and I have a new appreciation for the extreme mothering practices of the Echidna.  I think seeing a lungfish might be kinda cool.

Fortey does get one thing wrong: he says no mammal is venomous.  I don’t know if this is because the book was written before the slow loris was found to have venom glands, or if that discovery just stayed under his radar.  It’s a small thing in the overall body of knowledge in the book and has no consequence in the context of the subject matter under discussion.

Not an easy reading book, but one that’s worth the time and effort.

NB: Some quick research into the venomous mammal bit, and the slow loris is the only venomous primate; of course there are a handful of other venomous mammals, including my beloved (male) platypus.  I tried to find the reference in the text again, but I can’t remember which chapter it was in, and the index yields nothing for venom, so now I’m thinking he might have been referring to primates, not mammals, and the slow loris discovery was post-publication.

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the WorldThe Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World
by Abigail Tucker
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781476738239
Publication Date: December 1, 2016
Pages: 241
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

House cats rule back alleys, deserted Antarctic islands, and our bedrooms. Clearly, they own the Internet, where a viral cat video can easily be viewed upwards of ten million times. But how did cats accomplish global domination? Unlike dogs, they offer humans no practical benefit. The truth is they are sadly incompetent rat-catchers and pose a threat to many ecosystems. Yet, we love them still.

To better understand these furry strangers in our midst, Abby Tucker travels to meet the breeders, activists, and scientists who’ve dedicated their lives to cats. She visits the labs where people sort through feline bones unearthed from the first human settlements, treks through the Floridian wilderness in search of house cats on the loose, and hangs out with Lil Bub, one of the world’s biggest feline celebrities.

Witty, intelligent, and always curious, Tucker shows how these tiny creatures have used their relationship with humans to become one of the most powerful animals on the planet. The appropriate reaction to a cuddly kitten, it seems, might not be aww but awe.


This should have been a better book; Tucker is a self professed, life long lover of cats, and I understand her need to be objective about the subject matter – I applaud it, even.  But just about all of this book felt like an apology, or an over-correction of bias.  Or both.

The Introduction professes the text to be an overview of the history of cats as domesticated animals and their intersection with culture and pop culture.  It mostly succeeds, but really, just barely.  I think her motivation underneath it all is to point out that cats are cats and cats do what cats do, but humans are, at the end of the day, at the heart of the destruction that cats get blamed for.  After all, without human interference and transportation, house cats would still be a wild animal confined to the region around Turkey.  Unfortunately, if that’s the message she intended, she was a little too subtle about it.

There were highlights; I loved that she pointed out that cats are the only domesticated animal that chooses to be domesticated and the only domesticated animal that can successfully return to the wild.  When people say cats are independent, I don’t perhaps think they realise just how independent they truly are.  I admire them for that.

Otherwise, I mostly just argued with the text as I read it, and all in all I found The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions  by Thomas McNamee to be a superior text all the way around.  I learned a lot from that book, and it left me with a lot to think about.  This one, I was just mostly happy to have finished.

DNF: The Botany of Desire

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World
by Michael Pollan
Publication Date: January 1, 2001
Pages: 273
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Random House

In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant -- though this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin?
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds's most basic yearnings -- and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?

Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.


Nopity nope, nope, nope.  Couldn’t do it.  Way too much meandering about and I was just bored.  Plus, I have problems with authors trying to explain evolution as though it were a sentient process, and while I agree with the premise that plants have likely evolved to appeal to humans, thus ensuring their own survival, I draw the line at the conceit, through bad use of language, that the plants made a rational choice to do so.  It makes me imagine a room full of plants, sitting around a table, plotting out the structure of their own DNA in order to better market themselves to humans.

No, no, no, no, no.

Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry

VenomousVenomous
by Christie Wilcox
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780374283377
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Pages: 236
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Scientific American

In Venomous, the molecular biologist Christie Wilcox investigates venoms and the animals that use them, revealing how they work, what they do to the human body, and how they can revolutionise biochemistry and medicine today.

Wilcox takes us from the coast of Indonesia to the rainforests of Peru in search of the secrets of these mysterious animals. We encounter jellyfish that release microscopic venom-packed darts known to kill humans in just two minutes, a two-inch caterpillar with toxic bristles that trigger haemorrhaging throughout the body, and a stunning blue-ringed octopus with saliva capable of inducing total paralysis. How could an animal as simple as a jellyfish evolve such an intricate, deadly poison? And how can a snake possess enzymes that tear through tissue yet leave its own body unscathed? Wilcox meets the fearless scientists who often risk their lives studying these lethal beasts to find out, and puts her own life on the line to examine these species up close. Drawing on her own research on venom chemistry and evolution, she also shows how venom is helping us untangle the complex mechanisms of some of our most devastating diseases.


Venomous and I did not get off to a great start.  You’d think it would be a sure bet, since Chapter 1 kicks things off with the platypus, possibly my most favourite non-domesticated animal, and one she visited with – as she notes on page 1 – at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary “in Melbourne Australia”.  I’ve been to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and I have a picture of myself and the koala that peed on me to prove it (fun fact: koala pee smells sooooo bad).  The thing is, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is in Brisbane, not Melbourne.  Not a small error, either; one is at the bottom of the continent and the other at the top.  Plus, Wilcox was there, so you’d like to think she knew she was in Brisbane and not Melbourne.  Unless the koala pee stench got to her.

Anyhoo … I was understandably feeling a bit cynical after that illustrious beginning, and the first few chapters were not enough to sway me either way, but I began to find myself invested – as measured by how much I started reading out to MT (I am a trial to this poor man, I know) – by chapter 6: “All the better to eat you with”.  This is the chapter about necrotising venoms, proving that I’m really no better than a 12 year old boy sometimes.  But chapter 8 was even better: Mind Control.  OMG.

Chapter 9 is about the pharmacological miracles that have been wrought by venom research, and reading it made me want to rush out to the world and scream nobody touch anything! simply because at the rate humanity is going, we’ll exterminate the cure for cancer, et al long before we ever knew it existed.

Venomous is a popular science book and as such is filled with anecdotes that make it easier for the average arm chair science nerd to connect with the material being discussed; it also has a not insignificant amount of the harder science in the form of detailed descriptions of neural chemical pathways, etc. but I wouldn’t call it inaccessible.  In comparison, my recent read, Venom, is a far more hard-core scientific discussion and breakdown of the study of venom.  (And it had much better pictures).

In an interesting six-degrees-of-separation chain of my TBR reads, Venom cited this book, Venomous, in the text, and Wilcox has cited The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, so I guess I know what my next non-fiction book is going to be.

Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany TodayDarwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany Today
by Ken Thompson
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781788160285
Publication Date: July 4, 2018
Pages: 255
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Profile Books

A rediscovery of Darwin the botanist and his theories on insectivorous and climbing plants

Most of us think of Darwin at work on The Beagle, taking inspiration for his theory of evolution from his travels in the Galapagos. But Darwin published his Origin of Species nearly thirty years after his voyages and most of his labours in that time were focused on experimenting with and observing plants at his house in Kent. He was particularly interested in carnivorous and climbing plants, and in pollination and the evolution of flowers.

Ken Thompson sees Darwin as a brilliant and revolutionary botanist, whose observations and theories were far ahead of his time - and are often only now being confirmed and extended by high-tech modern research. Like Darwin, he is fascinated and amazed by the powers of plants - particularly their Triffid-like aspects of movement, hunting and 'plant intelligence'.


A well written homage to Darwin’s other ground-breaking works, each chapter covers one of Darwin’s papers or books concerning plants.  As the author points out, if Origin of Species never came out of the drawer, Darwin would still be a genius game-changer just in the subject of botany.

The book is easy enough to read with a basic background in botany and/or a tolerance for the technical names for the parts of a plant.  As usual after reading a book about plants, I have a new list of plants I want in my garden – all of them carnivorous.

Venom

VenomVenom
by Eivind Undheim, Ronald Jenner
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781486308378
Publication Date: October 1, 2017
Pages: 208
Genre: Natural Science, Science
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing

A fully illustrated guide to venom, its evolution in different animal groups, its effects and its treatments.
When we enter the world of venom, we enter the realm of one of the most diverse, versatile, sophisticated and deadly biological adaptations ever to have evolved on Earth.

Since it first appeared in ancient jellyfish and sea anemones, venom has proved so effective that it has since evolved independently in dozens of different animal groups. The authors reveal the many unique methods by which venomous animals deliver their cocktail of toxins and how these disrupt the physiology of the victims.

Jenner and Undheim also consider how humans have learnt to neutralise venom’s devastating effects, as well as exploit the power of venom in innovative ways to create new drugs to treat a variety of serious conditions. Fully illustrated throughout, this illuminating guide will appeal to all those with an interest in the wondrous world of venom.


This was not quite the book I was expecting, proving you can’t always judge a book by its cover and full colour photos.  I originally thought it would be a fast-ish read. I should have known better though because it’s published by CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research.

33 days and two nightmares later, (seriously – first time EVER a book has given me nightmares) and I can say I’d happily recommend that @elentarri check this book out if she can find it.  For anyone else out there that finds science, and especially natural sciences, fun and fascinating, and is happy to tackle a densely written narrative that falls closer to academic research paper than it does to popular science in writing style, you too should see if you can find this book.

Only 7 chapters and less than 200 pages long and filled with full colour illustrations, photos (warning: some of them are graphic) and charts, but don’t let this fool you: there’s a lot of hard science here.  As I was reading it, I got the impression that it’s mean to be a primer or introduction for science students and hard-core amateurs.  Chapter 1 discusses the definitive differences between a poison and a venom, luring the reader into a sense that this is definitely aimed at armchair scientists.  By the time Chapter 5 rolls around, though, the writers are saying things like:

Not all enzymes conserve their ancestral activity while evolving into molecular killers, however.  Some snake venom PLAenzymes, for example, have lot their enzymatic activity but they can still exert their toxic roles.

(Quote take at random from chapter 5 “Evolving Venoms”).  By chapter 3 I had learned a lot but the authors were making me work for it.  While I can say, how that I’m done, that I now have a good overall understanding of the concepts presented, it’s only a very thin veneer of all that this book offers.  This is a book I’d have to re-read several times, slowly, before I could say I had an immersive understanding of the text.

While chapter 5 is, I’d say, the densest chapter, the authors do wrap the book up with two lighter chapters that were akin to a nice after-dinner sorbet.  Chapter 6 discusses how venoms are used for traditional healing, cosmetics, recreational drug use (I can’t imagine ever thinking that smoking dried scorpions sounded like a viable option), rites of passage, spiritual vision quests, and modern medicines.  I found this chapter fascinating from an anthropological perspective.  Chapter 7 is a summary chapter that uses the honeybee as a microcosm example of all the concepts of venom relevant across the microcosm.

I have never been afraid of snakes and have always been one of the first to volunteer to interact with one, and while I’ve never been stupid about venomous ones, giving them a wide berth at all times, I’ve got to say reading this, especially Chapter 4 “Dissecting the power of venom”, planted a tiny seed of fear in me about ever running across them in any context.  What few anecdotes the authors offer are chilling and I’ve been wondering if, when I can walk again, I could feasibly bush walk in thigh-high thick rubber waders.  Maybe with some good insoles…

There are, of course, a lot of other animals covered in this book – as the authors point out, 25% of all phyla are venomous (mosquitoes are considered venomous).  I have a whole new respect for the male platypus during breeding season (must look up when that is), and the slow loris?, well all I can say is if it puts its arms up to hug you, run away – fast.  But the snakes are what leave the most indelible impression, making even the spiders look like the lesser evil.

All in all, a good book for those genuinely interested.

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the LawFuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law
by Mary Roach
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781324001935
Publication Date: September 1, 2021
Pages: 308
Genre: Natural Science, Science
Publisher: W.W. Norton

What’s to be done about a jaywalking moose? A bear caught breaking and entering? A murderous tree? Three hundred years ago, animals that broke the law would be assigned legal representation and put on trial. These days, as New York Times best-selling author Mary Roach discovers, the answers are best found not in jurisprudence but in science: the curious science of human-wildlife conflict, a discipline at the crossroads of human behavior and wildlife biology.

Roach tags along with animal-attack forensics investigators, human-elephant conflict specialists, bear managers, and "danger tree" faller blasters. Intrepid as ever, she travels from leopard-terrorized hamlets in the Indian Himalaya to St. Peter’s Square in the early hours before the pope arrives for Easter Mass, when vandal gulls swoop in to destroy the elaborate floral display. She taste-tests rat bait, learns how to install a vulture effigy, and gets mugged by a macaque.

Combining little-known forensic science and conservation genetics with a motley cast of laser scarecrows, langur impersonators, and trespassing squirrels, Roach reveals as much about humanity as about nature’s lawbreakers. When it comes to "problem" wildlife, she finds, humans are more often the problem—and the solution. Fascinating, witty, and humane, Fuzz offers hope for compassionate coexistence in our ever-expanding human habitat.


 

This has not been a great week for me overall, and this arrived Tuesday afternoon (book lover’s torture #12: when you hear the delivery man leave your new books at the doorstep and you can’t get up to retrieve them), and  by Wednesday I was in desperate need of a distraction.  Mary Roach had me laughing out loud on page 1, and I can’t tell you how much I needed those laughs.

In her introduction she states that she’s starting with the felonious crimes first: those incidents, usually bear/cougar/mountain lion, where people are mortally wounded, and ends the book with the crimes more akin to nuisances; crop theft, stealing food, etc.

It probably says something about me that I found the first half much easier to read than the second half – or maybe not.  The crimes may be ‘lesser’ but the punishments meted out by people most definitely are not.  Humanity’s ability to embrace wholesale slaughter is depressing.

The author manages to end the book on a hopeful note, and while the writing isn’t always even (sometimes the humour is a tad over-done), I learned a lot and sometimes I was entertained (usually by the way the author can laugh at herself).  Her writing isn’t for everyone, but for those that enjoy bit of entertaining and informative science journalism, her books usually deliver.

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: being an account of the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: being an account of the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836
by A.J. Wood, Charles Darwin, Clint Twist
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9781742114446
Publication Date: March 1, 2009
Pages: 32
Genre: Middle Grade, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: The Five Mile Press

The Beagle Adventures of Charles Darwin tells the story of his momentous voyage aboard the Beagle to his own children. This purports to be Darwin's own notebook, packed with his discoveries.

Featuring a route map, a cutaway of the Beagle, notes about life on board and navigation aids, an introduction to the Galapagos Islands and details of the species Darwin discovered, this is all you need to understand his theory of evolution.

Released to celebrate the anniversary of Charles Darwin 's birth in February 2009. Includes paper novelties and detailed artwork to bring Darwin's discoveries to life. Packaged in a beautifully designed hardback with leather closing ties, Darwin's Notebook is the perfect gift for the enquiring young mind.


 

I spotted this book yesterday in a little used book shop on our way home, and I couldn’t resist its magnetic cover or the quick glimpse I got of the inside before MT whisked it off to the counter for me.  I’m a sucker for books with little bits and pieces glued to the inside: envelopes with letters, or fold out flaps of additional information.  They bring me the same delight as a well-done pop-up book.

Being rather exhausted on our return home, this felt like the perfect fit for me last night, and it was.  It’s beautifully put together and the writing was clear, concise, and well balanced for a middle schooler with language aimed at their reading level without being at all childish.  While certainly not detailed, I thought it covered the high points of the Beagle trip for Darwin; certainly enough for a middle schooler’s introduction to Darwin.  I’d have liked it to have a few more bits and bobs in it, but that’s just my inner child talking.

For what it is and what it’s trying to be, I think it excels.  It’s a gorgeous and charming book.

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and BehaviorThe Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior
by Stefano Mancuso
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: August 28, 2018
Pages: 225
Genre: Science

Do plants have intelligence? Do they have memory? Are they better problem solvers than people? The Revolutionary Genius of Plants—a fascinating, paradigm-shifting work that upends everything you thought you knew about plants—makes a compelling scientific case that these and other astonishing ideas are all true.

Plants make up eighty percent of the weight of all living things on earth, and yet it is easy to forget that these innocuous, beautiful organisms are responsible for not only the air that lets us survive, but for many of our modern comforts: our medicine, food supply, even our fossil fuels.

On the forefront of uncovering the essential truths about plants, world-renowned scientist Stefano Mancuso reveals the surprisingly sophisticated ability of plants to innovate, to remember, and to learn, offering us creative solutions to the most vexing technological and ecological problems that face us today. Despite not having brains or central nervous systems, plants perceive their surroundings with an even greater sensitivity than animals. They efficiently explore and react promptly to potentially damaging external events thanks to their cooperative, shared systems; without any central command centers, they are able to remember prior catastrophic events and to actively adapt to new ones.


I had high hopes for this one, and it started out really strong.  But it lost its momentum after the first few chapters.

This is a translation from the original Italian, so I can’t be sure there’s not some explanation there, but the writing felt oddly defensive, as if it should have been titled In Defence of the Revolutionary Genius of Plants.  It also fell in this weird middle ground of explaining what felt like super obvious basics in a very academic voice.

I admit there were some chapters I skimmed, but then things got interesting in chapters 4 and 5, although I got irritated by the failure of reasoning exhibited by the author – which is, to be fair, a very common one.  The chapter concerned the symbiotic and sometimes manipulative relationship between some plants and animals and in the writing he mused on the motivation of the plant to develop such strategies.  I hear/read this type of thing a lot and it drives me nuts; I always picture of room full of whatever – in this case acacias – sitting around pondering, with a whiteboard covered in figures in the background, plans for their future evolutionary development.  I’m not schooled in science, but I do know that’s putting the cart before the horse.

I was back to skimming towards the end as there was a lot of general lecturing on how applications from the plant world can be applied to solve the industrial world’s problems.  There’s a little tooting of his own horn too, but to be fair the Jellyfish Barge sounds incredibly cool.  The last chapter on plants in space I skipped completely as I lacked the interest and the attention span to tackle it (it was short and I’m not sorry).

A beautifully made book, with some really good information but overall it was just not written (or perhaps translated) in an engaging enough way to keep me glued to the page.

The Orchid Thief

The Orchid ThiefThe Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780449003718
Publication Date: January 4, 2000
Pages: 300
Publisher: Ballantine Books

A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.

In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.


 

The first thing you need to know is that this is a book about Florida and orchidists.  I am a (born and bred) Floridian raised in a family of orchidists.

I preface this review with these facts because there’s going to be a strongly sentimental bias to my feelings about this book.  I can’t possibly be objective about either subject, because — let’s call it “Old Florida” even though I’m young enough to have missed out on the truly old Florida — is what my soul is made of.  If it were a visible thing it would be full of scrub forest, swamp land and the Gulf of Mexico (and hush puppies and iced tea).  And no way could I be objective about orchids; I literally grew up in greenhouses.  My mother’s flower shop, which my father’s greenhouses and laboratory were attached to, was a road, a small-town library parking lot, and a dirt alley away from our home.  I’m pretty sure were there a way to tally up time spent at home vs. the shop, the shop would actually win.  And there are very few memories of my dad that pop into my head that don’t involve him watering his orchids, replanting his orchids, or bent over his sanitised glove box – a design of his own creation – or… the least pleasant from a sensory aspect: him cooking up his growing media, which often consisted of combinations of vegetable and fruit never, ever, designed to be together, like bananas and potatoes (omg, the smell).  I have lost hours of my life to greenhouses sprinkled throughout Southwest Florida (and Illinois), and orchid shows, before I was old enough to be left to my own devices.

So believe me when I say that, other than my pedantic nitpicking over calling Florida’s ecosystem a jungle, Susan Orlean nailed both the state and the crazy orchid loving people in it.  Including herself in the story creates a nice foil for the eccentric mix of people that make up the less civilised places of Florida (which is pretty much all the places).  My sister would be a better judge of how close she came to the personalities of the players; I recognised the names but given my relationship with orchids (YOU MAY CALL ME DEATH), I was only ever a spectator, and a pretty disinterested as only a teenager can be, but Orlean captures the atmosphere, the close-knit community and the cattiness of the orchid world perfectly.

According to the publisher and book flap, this is a book about John Larouche (whom I’d never heard of until I read this), but really, it’s about all orchidists and their often unfathomable passion for a plant that is, objectively, ugly. Until it flowers, and then it’s spectacular.  Specifically, this book is about the Ghost Orchid, a Florida native known only to live in a very few spots in the Fakahatchee Strand.  A plant that consists of nothing but roots and a flower, no leaves.  While Larouche is absent for much of the book, the Ghost Orchid is always present. This is a good thing because I doubt anybody could take an awful lot of a character like Larouche.

I could meander on in this review for quite some time, but I wouldn’t really be talking about the book, so I’ll just say: it was good; it was enjoyable and well written and enlightening.  If eccentric characters a la Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil appeal to you along with the swampy, humid, atmosphere of Florida, you might find something to like in this read.

On a slightly related side note, my father passed away on this date in 2004, so the read felt especially timely for me.  What made it even more poignant though, was what I found when doing a bit of googling about the Ghost Orchid; it seems Larouche was not entirely correct when he said nobody could breed the Ghost Orchid (breed, not clone, which is what Larouche was trying to do):  it turns out my daddy could, and did.  I found this except on an orchid site out of Delray Beach called HBI Orchids:

The Ghost Orchid, Polyrrhiza lindeni (old school name).  We at HBI have been working on growing ghost orchids from seed for over 28 years ever since we first bought 3 ghost orchids flasks from Larry Evans.  Larry did curating and flasking work for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. Selby once green housed the top premier specimens of this Florida species.  The ghost orchid parents used by Larry originated in the Fakahatchee Strand and were first bred by him many years before ghost orchids were designated as an endangered species.  Fakahatchee ghost orchids with their longer frog-legs/tendrils and ghostly all-white flower surpass the truncated short-tendril inferior class lindeni green-flower ghost orchid pretenders named Dendrophylax sallei from Cuba and Dominican Republic in any competition and will always be the more valuable type of this vanishing species to own. 

I clearly remember my dad doing Selby’s lab/flask work; at that time they couldn’t do it themselves without contamination (orchid seed has to be handled in a completely sterile environment, sprinkled across growing medium in sealed, sterile flasks; otherwise just about any microbe floating in the air will overtake and kill the seedlings before they can start), so they’d asked him to do it in his lab.  But I never knew they were ghost orchids or how special they are.  So tip of the hat to Orlean for leading me back to my father in more ways than I bargained on.