by Susan Orlean
Publication Date: January 4, 2000
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.