The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession
In Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing true story of beauty and obsession is John Laroche, a renegade plant dealer and sharply handsome guy, in spite of the fact that he is missing his front teeth and has the posture of al dente spaghetti. In 1994, Laroche and three Seminole Indians were arrested with rare orchids they had stolen from a wild swamp in south Florida that is filled with some of the world’s most extraordinary plants and trees. Laroche had planned to clone the orchids and then sell them for a small fortune to impassioned collectors. After he was caught in the act, Laroche set off one of the oddest legal controversies in recent memory, which brought together environmentalists, Native American activists, and devoted orchid collectors. The result is a tale that is strange, compelling, and hilarious.
New Yorker writer Susan Orlean followed Laroche through swamps and into the eccentric world of Florida’s orchid collectors, a subculture of aristocrats, fanatics, and smugglers whose obsession with plants is all-consuming. Along the way, Orlean learned the history of orchid collecting, discovered an odd pattern of plant crimes in Florida, and spent time with Laroche’s partners, a tribe of Seminole Indians who are still at war with the United States.
There is something fascinating or funny or truly bizarre on every page of The Orchid Thief: the story of how the head of a famous Seminole chief came to be displayed in the front window of a local pharmacy; or how seven hundred iguanas were smuggled into Florida; or the case of the only known extraterrestrial plant crime. Ultimately, however, Susan Orlean’s book is about passion itself, and the amazing lengths to which people will go to gratify it. That passion is captured with singular vision in The Orchid Thief, a once-in-a-lifetime story by one of our most original journalists.
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
Barnes and Noble
Whatever the reason for their particular appeal, orchids, since their arrival in America in 1838, have come to symbolize elegance. Yet essayist Susan Orlean uncovers the rough drama behind the flower’s history, recounting tales of paid professional hunters who met their deaths through drowning, fever, and murder in locales like Bhamo, Myanmar, Panama, and Ecuador. Contemporary Florida, it turns out, is a hotbed for the shady side of orchid mania, and it is there that Orlean meets the “thief” of her title, John Laroche. A reckless iconoclast, Laroche is an orchid breeder who gleefully cooks seeds in his microwave. After the wealthy Seminole tribe hires him to run a nursery, he concocts a grandiose scheme to obtain a rare “ghost” orchid from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and clone it. The slight hitch is that, under Florida’s Endangered Species law, it’s illegal to collect wild orchids. The Seminoles, however, consider themselves at war with America, and Laroche enlists a few members to commit the actual theft, assuming that Native Americans are exempt from government law. After stuffing 200 orchids into pillowcases, Laroche and his cohorts are arrested, and Laroche is convicted.
Orlean hopes Laroche will offer her insight into orchid mania, and he makes a lively, contrary companion as he guides her through Florida’s often bizarre botanical subculture. In Palm Beach mansions and low-rent bungalows, at conferences, galas, and greenhouses, she is introduced to devotees who regale her with accounts of rivalries and discoveries, of lives both ruined and enlightened by a passion for “the most compelling and maddening of all collectible living things.” In the end, Orlean herself succumbs to orchid mania and makes a heart-of-darkness trek into the frightening Fakahatchee swamp, taking the reader on a fascinating journey in which obsession ultimately becomes, in her vision, an optimistic belief in “the perfectibility of some living thing” and its power to transform our lives. Margot Towne
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