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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
For listeners seeking to learn something new, Orlean offers a whimsical look at the sexy, mysterious world of orchids. Perfect for anyone who wants to know a little bit about a lot of things, this quirky, quintessential New Yorker story pulls back the curtain on a community of people who are driven by a passion to collect and cultivate some very exotic plants. New York journalist Orlean first learned about orchid "thief" John Laroche by reading a story about him in a local Florida newspaper. He (along with his henchmen, three Seminole Indians) had been taken to court for removing an endangered species of orchid from the state's Fakahatchee Swamp. Orlean hightailed it down to the Sunshine State to investigate and wound up immersing herself in the wacky world of orchid maniacs, intrigued more by their passion than by the orchids themselves. Myers's reading vacillates between the inspiring and the pedagogical. When reading passages about the over-the-top nature of some eccentric orchid collectors, her tone borders on the affected. But during the book's more introspective moments, as when Orlean wishes she could be as passionate about something as her subjects are about orchids, Myers turns quiet and pensive. Overall, Myers's enthusiastic performance is a perfect complement to Orlean's book and the new motion picture loosely based on it, Adaptation.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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 title character, John LaRoche is almost-but-not-quite worth the focus he receives. He has a quirky mindset, an enthusiasm that is catching; but his total self-absorption gets tiresome. His knowledge and keenness for the art and science of plants is entertaining. But hey, the guy is a small time crook, a trail of unrealized dreams, and a very poor friend. In spite of many denials, I think Susan had more than a mild crush on him; why else put up with all his inconsiderate nonsense?
The description of the various orchids is masterful, (How I wished for color plates!) and Susan was vivid in all interior and exterior moods in her depiction of Florida. So much so, I would state southern Florida is the underlying theme of the book. Her experiences and bravery in the beastly Fakahatchee Swamp, home of many wild orchids, are dramatic. Plunging into brackish water up to the waist, and having to toe around for submerged alligators on the squishy bottom is not for the faint of heart.
Part of the enjoyment of this fine non-fictional work is the very likeable Susan herself. She tends to be shy, hates the heat, is homesick, tired of driving all over, fears the swamp, but she persists. The end result is well worth her efforts.
If you have ever belonged to a specialty horticutural society and questioned your sanity when caught up in the thrall of your favorite plant, this book will make you feel like the very picture of placid normalcy when compared to orchid growers.
Humorous, and a quick read, I recommend this book to all those plant persons who are not afraid of seeing perhaps the tiniest fragment of themselves reflected in the fascinatingly consumed characters portrayed in this book.