- Series: Ballantine Reader's Circle
- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books; 13th edition (January 4, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 044900371X
- ISBN-13: 978-0449003718
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars See all reviews (321 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #90,745 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – January 4, 2000
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Orchidelirium is the name the Victorians gave to the flower madness that is for botanical collectors the equivalent of gold fever. Wealthy orchid fanatics of that era sent explorers (heavily armed, more to protect themselves against other orchid seekers than against hostile natives or wild animals) to unmapped territories in search of new varieties of Cattleya and Paphiopedilum. As knowledge of the family Orchidaceae grew to encompass the currently more than 60,000 species and over 100,000 hybrids, orchidelirium might have been expected to go the way of Dutch tulip mania. Yet, as journalist Susan Orlean found out, there still exists a vein of orchid madness strong enough to inspire larceny among collectors.
The Orchid Thief centers on south Florida and John Laroche, a quixotic, charismatic schemer once convicted of attempting to take endangered orchids from the Fakahatchee swamp, a state preserve. Laroche, a horticultural consultant who once ran an extensive nursery for the Seminole tribe, dreams of making a fortune for the Seminoles and himself by cloning the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii. Laroche sums up the obsession that drives him and so many others:
I really have to watch myself, especially around plants. Even now, just being here, I still get that collector feeling. You know what I mean. I'll see something and then suddenly I get that feeling. It's like I can't just have something--I have to have it and learn about it and grow it and sell it and master it and have a million of it.Even Orlean--so leery of orchid fever that she immediately gives away any plant that's pressed upon her by the growers in Laroche's circle--develops a desire to see a ghost orchid blooming and makes several ultimately unsuccessful treks into the Fakahatchee. Filled with Palm Beach socialites, Native Americans, English peers, smugglers, and naturalists as improbably colorful as the tropical blossoms that inspire them, this is a lyrical, funny, addictively entertaining read. --Barrie Trinkle --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From Publishers Weekly
"Folding virtue and criminality around profit are [John] Laroche's specialty," Orlean writes of the oddly likable felon who's the subject of her latest book. But what could be virtuous about poaching endangered orchids, which?not insignificantly?are worth a small fortune? If exotic flowers were cloned, everyone could afford them, Laroche would say. It's just such "amoral morality" that compels New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Saturday Night) to relocate to Naples, Fla., in order to dig into an orchid-collecting subculture as rarefied as its object of desire. Orlean spends two years attempting to place maverick Laroche in the rigid strata of orchid society, the heart of which is located in Florida. The milieu includes "Palm Beach plant lovers" and international stars such as Bob Fuchs, a commercial breeder whose family has been in the business for three generations. Laroche, on the other hand, is a self-taught horticulturist, yet one who has enough expertise to convince the nearby Seminole Indians to hire him as plant manager for their nursery. With the promise of big profits, he launches a plan to reproduce the "ghost" orchid, using samples stolen from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, leading to his arrest. Though she fills in a brief history of the $10-billion trade, Orlean's account of her orchid-land explorations, which include wading through a swamp in hope of spotting a ghost orchid (she doesn't see one) is not so much an expose as a meandering survey of the peccadilloes of the local orchid breeders. Clearly Orlean is most intrigued by autodidact Laroche, not the world he temporarily inhabits, which unfortunately makes for a slim, if engaging, volume. Author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Ms. Orlean is as much part of this story as anyone else: she's there, she's experiencing this, and her thoughts and curiosity take us through lessons in history, evolution, geology, botany, and current orchid mania - the characters, the controversies, and the competition. Her style includes much wit and humor which makes for somewhat light reading and a few laugh out loud lines.
Front and center are orchids - "a jewel of a flower on a haystack of a plant" - so evolved and diversified they've become "the biggest flowering plant family on earth because each orchid species has made itself irresistible." Orchids are "ancient, intricate living things that have adapted to every environment on earth." There are tens of thousands of varieties, and more being created by natural as well as man-made hybridization virtually every day. Orchids often outlive human beings. In fact, orchids can theoretically live forever, since they have no natural enemies.
Orlean describes some extreme personalities of orchid people as an amusing side story. Some orchid owners designate a person as an "orchid heir" in their wills since the owners expect that their precious orchids will outlive them. Another reviewer commented: “This book will make you feel like the very picture of placid normalcy when compared to orchid growers.”
“Laroche loved orchids, but I came to believe he loved the difficulty and fatality of getting them almost as much as the flowers themselves.” Laroche is a kindred spirit of those fellow orchid hunters of the 19th century who rescued fragile flowers in the midst of an erupting volcano in the Phillipines and a revolution in Columbia. An orchid from Burma was auctioned off in London “still attached to the human skull on which it had been found.”
Southern Florida is an underlying theme. Many of us remember the famous land-scams of the 1950s and 60s. “ Florida land is elastic: you can make more of it.” (pg 122) Any dank Florida cypress swamp can be drained and remade… to look like a Tuscan village or an English town. Interesting characters appear every few pages: Snake Boy, frog poachers, Miss Seminole, Lee More the Adventurer, the Ghost Grader, Lord Mansfield, etc.
The Fakahatchee Swamp is home of many wild orchids, Orlean comments wryly when plunging into brackish water up to the waist, and having to toe around for submerged alligators on the squishy bottom, "I hate being in a swamp with machete-wielding convicts."
Indian rights and the Florida Seminole tribe and business interests are another side story. The legal similarities between Chief Billie and the panther and Laroche and the ghost orchids have a fine distinction.
But the orchids! My thoughts are like the authors: “It’s like an explosion in a paint factory…” The flowers are interesting but the plant looks dead. “These flowers are poetic.” They are all so different. This one is speckled. “Here’s a weird shape. Look at this long tube.” The variety is overwhelming.
"The Orchid Thief" introduces readers to the intriguing and obsessive world of orchid identification, collection, creation--and theft. Orchid fanciers will go to nearly impossible lengths to find a new orchid, and hybrids are quite common and carefully grown and then sold. Susan Orlean introduces the reader into the world of the orchid-obsessed, and provides quite an interesting history and perspective on orchids and the people who collect them.
"The Orchid Thief" was actually made into a movie, rechristened "Adaptation" and featuring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar for the character he portrayed. In the Kindle version of "The Orchid Thief" I purchased, there is included a rather humorous, tongue-in-cheek "interview" with Susan Orlean about the movie, which it should be noted, does NOT follow the book that closely. However, I highly recommend the movie, particularly after having read the book.