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Pantheon, 272 pages, $23
The Orchid Thief: A True Story
Ballantine, 284 pages, $14 (paperback)
Tulipomania: The Story of
the World’s Most Coveted
Crown, 273 pages, $23
In the four-and-a-half years that I lived in a smallish, southern-exposure apartment in Dupont Circle, I let my plants roam free. With generous sunlight, daily waterings, and modest doses of
Miracle-Gro, five or six ordinary houseplants eventually took on heroic proportions, evolving into a jungle of stringy tendrils, some of which would have measured 15 or 20 feet—had I been able to extricate a single strand to measure it. When I moved out, the biggest plants required multiple people to drag them down the stairs, with one person holding the pot and the others holding three extra-large plastic trash bags stuffed with the vines. Once I vacated, the post-plant detritus was so thick on the floor that I was surprised to receive my security deposit back.
Was I a plant obsessive? To some degree, perhaps. But in the world of botanical compulsions, I don’t even register. That’s the message of three recent books about the insular worlds of orchid and tulip lovers—Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, and Mike Dash’s Tulipomania: specifically, that the men and women who love flowers tend toward extremism. Fortunately, they are also reasonably self-aware. As one orchid lover told author Eric Hansen, “the only people that are weirder than us are the dog-show people…and we are not a distant second by any means.”
Exaggeration? Maybe. Lots of hobbies turn seemingly normal people into compulsives, and on an intellectual level, flower mania does at least make some sense, because this particular variety of fanatic at least passes time in the company of beautiful flora, rather than, say, beer cans. Yet flower power seems to exert a special pull on people.
It’s hardly a new condition. Consider the Ottoman Empire, which during the 16th century spun an odd web that linked flowers, empire, and death. Inside Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, Dash explains, the ruling Sultan employed roughly 1,000 bostancis, or imperial servants. Two of their most important duties were tending the royal family’s tulip collections—the private centerpiece of the palace—and killing enemies of the state. The men who prepared cut flowers for the sultan’s living quarters were often the same ones who sewed up women in weighted sacks and tossed them into the water. When a noble fell out of favor, he would have one chance to save his neck—by racing the head gardener on the palace grounds. If the noble won the race, he would be merely banished; if he lost, he would be killed.
In the 1880s, rich collectors in Victorian England sent emissaries to the far corners of the globe to find and plunder rare orchids for their personal collections. From Orlean’s description, both the relentless collectors and the ruthless hunters seem to have been equally crazed. In the remote Tanimbar Islands, one hunting team found some great orchids but had some problems with the locals—who chopped off the heads, hands, feet, and penises of several would-be collectors. In the meantime, one orchid hunter in New Guinea found good samples growing on human remains. So eager was he to seize the flowers that he carted them off for shipment still attached to the ribs, shinbones, and skulls they were rooted on.
In Hansen’s Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy, the San Francisco-based travel writer brings this story up to date. In a series of quick, easy-to-swallow chapters, Hansen hopscotches around the globe, in pursuit of an ever-odder cast of characters. In Borneo, he hikes through the rain forest with two orchidophiles and a group of indigenous people who are mystified at why palefaces would come from half a world away to stare at flowers. In Turkey, Hansen samples a traditional ice cream made from a species of wild orchid tuber that looks, in the wild, like a pair of fox testicles. (The ice cream is so elastic that it can be formed into a jump rope.)
Elsewhere, Hansen mingles with foul-tempered American orchid-show judges, a shadowy German importer-hobbyist who drives life-threateningly fast, an endearingly dyspeptic Malaysian orchid grower (think Khan of King of the Hill), and a harpsichord-playing Parisian who keeps his orchid-filled apartment so humid that every surface is covered by mold. (He also sprays so many pesticides inside that his red-blood-cell count plummets and a boy downstairs “start[s] losing his hair and vomiting uncontrollably.” At that point, the man thoughtfully moves.)
“I don’t want to give the impression that perfectly normal, healthy, thoughtful, and balanced people are not drawn to orchids,” Hansen writes. “I am told they exist. I just didn’t have much luck finding them. The ones I encountered were the horticultural extremists, the lone rangers, pioneers, fantasy merchants, and traveling flower show flim-flam people.”
Hansen does a credible job delving into the question of why orchids inspire such fervor. Two of the bigger reasons might be filed under Intellect and Libido. The intellectual part stems from the ingenious methods these plants have devised to distribute their pollen. One type of orchid, for instance, apparently inspired a species of moth to develop a 12-inch tongue to collect nectar from the bottom of its long neck. Others pollinate by showering bees with tiny darts or bludgeoning wasps with floral hammers.
The lustful side of things owes itself to the tendency of orchids to form expressively sinuous shapes. They do it to attract insects, of course, but humans are inevitably caught as well. Consider the Magic Lantern, or “bodice ripper,” orchid, which Hansen first ogles at the Seattle home of an 84-year-old woman. “The shiny, candy-apple-red staminode that covered the reproductive organs was shaped like an extended tongue identical to the Rolling Stones logo,” he writes. “This shocking red protrusion nestled in the cleavage of two blushing petals then dropped down as if to lick the tip of an inverted pouch that looked like the head of an engorged penis. The blatant carnality of Magic Lantern was unmistakable, and I found myself wondering what sort of impression the flower was making on the old woman.” (He never does find out.)
The one villain of Hansen’s story is the seemingly innocuous-sounding CITES. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is a Geneva-based organization charged with protecting threatened species around the world. Thoroughly convinced by the horror stories he hears from fanatics—surprise greenhouse raids, unwarranted plant confiscations, allegations of bribery—Hansen uses his book as an anti-CITES soapbox. He decries the organization’s rigidly bureaucratic approach, which—he and his informants claim—prevents collectors from saving rare, wild orchids even when their habitat is slated for bulldozing. And he provides compelling evidence that CITES coddles established academics and well-known botanical gardens while slapping independent hobbyists with trumped-up charges and pursuing them with disproportionate vengeance.
But Hansen’s ire about CITES emerges slowly but crescendoes into a rant—until it threatens to undercut his otherwise thorough reporting. After all, although he makes some valid points about CITES’s overreaches, I’m not persuaded that men who would poison themselves with pesticide for the sake of their plants have a discernibly clearer grip on reality than do the regulators.
Strangely, Hansen makes no mention of Orlean’s 1998 The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, which was reissued as a paperback earlier this year. But the content of the two books is different—I don’t remember any person appearing in both—and the two authors’ approaches are both distinct and complementary.
Given Hansen’s wide travels and international outlook, his book is worth reading first; Orlean’s narrative, by contrast, rarely leaves the oppressively steamy air of Florida. Orlean lavishes her attention on one man: John Laroche, a maniacally creative but profoundly neurotic man who has a habit of becoming intensely interested in one subject, and then, without warning, dropping it cold turkey, never to return.
For a while during the 1990s, Laroche became interested in orchids. He thought up a characteristically half-baked scheme to take rare plant samples from Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in order to clone them for profit on behalf of the local Seminole Indian tribe. The problem was that taking the orchids from state land was illegal; he was arrested and charged with the theft of an endangered species. When Orlean noticed a wire story about his arrest in the newspaper, she bolted upright, visions of book advances dancing in her head.
Orlean went to Florida and immersed herself in the orchid demimonde—but even more in the memorably crazed universe of John Laroche. Laroche is a pasty, video-game-generation slacker-geek with an overactive imagination, a shortage of teeth, and a vocabulary that relies heavily on compound-ass words, such as “weird-ass,” “big-ass,” and “ugly-ass.” When he gets to talking, it’s hard to shut him up. At one orchid show, Orlean reports,
he’d volunteer comments to the dealers or the spectators, or declare something loudly and profanely, which always got him a look and usually started a conversation. He talked constantly, he knew something about everything or he was very good at faking that he did, he reeled off Latin names and botanical facts and took professorial interest in my learning as we went along….I was always surprised by how much people liked him. They liked him in spite of the fact that he was a confirmed misanthrope, and that he has none of the usual traits of popularity—conventional good looks, smooth manners, an agreeable temperament—and that he has a challenging, slightly obscene sense of humor and the habit of lateness and that he constantly overpromises.
As good as Orlean’s portrait of Laroche is, her most spellbinding reportage originates in the unearthly landscape of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve itself. She sets the stage by explaining the tortured history of the swamp. In the early 20th century, people tried to plant crops there, but it didn’t work, and timbering lasted only as long as the cypress population held out. In the 1960s, shysters began to convince gullible Northerners that they should make the Fakahatchee their retirement home, even though the desolate, interior-Florida swampland was thoroughly unsuitable for any kind of real estate development.
The ostensible reason for Orlean’s visit to the Fakahatchee—indeed, it’s the driving force behind her narrative—is the search for an elusive and enigmatic variety of flower called the ghost orchid, which appears to hover in the space in front of tree trunks. Unfortunately, Orlean’s muddy romps in the swamp, even those with Laroche, ultimately grow as monotonous as the scenery, while the purpose behind it all becomes ever more nebulous.
Moreover, Orlean’s book—like Hansen’s—is bereft of helpful appendix materials such as tables to explain the differences between various orchid species. For some reason, neither publisher saw fit to include photographs of the myriad orchid species discussed in their texts. Nor, for that matter, is there a photograph of Laroche, even though Orlean’s initial article in the New Yorker had one.
Despite these shortcomings, the most pleasing thing about Orchid Fever and The Orchid Thief is their complete dissimilarity. The fact that two authors could write hundreds of stimulating pages about the same topic and never bump into each other’s material surely speaks volumes about how high deep the orchid world’s reservoir of freakiness actually runs.
The third book, Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower and The Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, takes another path entirely. Although Dash uses the theme of flower obsession as a jumping-off point, his subtitle is rather misleading. Dash—a British journalist whose formal training is in history—had to piece together the tale of the tulip and its admirers from the documentary record, rather than experiencing it firsthand at today’s judging tables and greenhouses. As a result, his story of 17th-century Holland is less a parade of memorable characters—although there are a few—than a lesson in social and, especially, economic history.
Dash’s keen understanding of economics doesn’t mean that his book drags. On the contrary, the tulip’s journey from Asia to Europe allows Dash to paint a vivid portrait of life in flower’s adoptive cultures, from the bloody battlefields of 14th-century Kosovo, where a Turkish prince fought with a tulip sewed into his undergarment, to the year 1637 in the Netherlands, when a speculative craze briefly made a single tulip bulb equivalent in price to two tons of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, an oak bed, or a ship.
The Dutch tulip boom rightfully serves as the centerpiece of Dash’s book. It is not so much his recapitulation of the story that is impressive; rather, it is his smart dissection of the factors that made this seemingly absurd boom possible, even inevitable. During the last days of the 16th century and the first days of the 17th, tulips were exotic rarities in Europe, cultivated by (or at least on behalf of) nobility—the only people who could afford to grow them. (One rich landowner decided to “multiply” his garden of a few dozen flowers by the only way he could afford—through the use of a specially built mirrored cabinet.)
But within two decades, the flower mania would grow. For one thing, tulips do well even in poor European soils and therefore are a good candidate to spread (and be seen) widely. From the French provinces, tulips moved quickly to the salons of France, where aristocrats took to them readily. (Ladies of the court, for instance, used tulips pinned to their dresses to complement the cleavage.) Paris then, as now, was a style mecca, and with the expansion of international commerce beginning to tie the states of Europe closer together, the trend was picked up elsewhere.
The Netherlands fell especially hard. Regional political factors had led to a great migration into Amsterdam, a city blessed with ready capital (thanks to a flourishing spice trade) and a political system that did not frown on self-improvement. Tulip fancying even passed muster with the stern theologians of the day, who viewed cultivation as honest manual labor rather than frivolity.
Rumors of aphrodisiac qualities fed the craze, as did the widespread Dutch habit of gambling. Money was a strong motivator as well; the lower and middle classes joined the craze in greater numbers than either the landed gentry (the ones who initially succumbed to tulip love) or the established commodity traders (who were well-versed in buying and selling items in formal stock markets). Instead, ordinary citizens assembled sophisticated procedures to govern the trading of tulips. Biology, too, helped speed the boom: The flowers’ slow pace of reproduction ensured that supply could never quite catch up to demand.
Then there was the freewheeling effect that alcohol had on tulip-trading sessions:
Since each deal was celebrated with a call for wine—in itself a symbol of ostentation and wealth in what was a predominantly beer-drinking province—and since wine in Dutch taverns was served in vast pewter pitchers that held anything from two pints to one and a half gallons, the trade was conducted for the most part in a haze of inebriation. Doubtless this, combined with the bravado generated by groups of friends laughing and talking into the night, explains a good deal about the otherwise puzzling mechanisms of the mania.
The tulip market began going haywire when the exchanges began to shift to less tangible items. Speculators, usually ordinary citizens lacking much wealth beyond the realm of tulips, first decided to traffic in bulbs that were still in the ground waiting to grow—essentially tulip futures, which existed only in the form of promissory notes. Then these same traders began dealing in the minuscule portion of a bulb (or futures) known as an ace, one-twentieth of a gram. This division made possible the purchase of shares of bulbs—lowering prices for small investors and simultaneously raising the total value of a single bulb.
“The Dutch,” Dash explains, “called this phase of the tulip craze the windhandel, which can be translated as ‘trading in the wind.’ It was a phrase rich in meaning. To a seaman it meant the difficulties of navigating a ship steering close to the breeze. To a stockbroker, it was a reminder that both the tulip traders’ stock and their profits were so much paper in the wind.”
Needless to say, the craze eventually went into a free fall, in February 1637. For a while, panic set in, with town councils and judges left to puzzle over who owed what to whom. To their credit, the authorities worked for the better part of the next year to divvy up the massive paper losses, parcel them out, and settle most accounts—apparently, according to the records Dash dug up, in a reasonable, fair-minded and amicable fashion. The author reports nary a suicide nor duel arising from the crash.
Although the author is silent on the subject, the parallels with today’s economy are compelling. Like the modern Internet stock boom, the tulip craze was a speculative bubble built on rising prices that were increasingly divorced from the sale of any tangible goods. Even the notion that tulip swapping democratized the once-exclusive Dutch trading system eerily foreshadows the rise of amateur day-traders in the late 1990s.
It would be trite to suggest that Tulipomania should serve as a warning to our own irrational exuberance, so I will not do so. Instead, I will merely point out the speculators’ level-headed response to the crisis. One can only hope that any modern-day downfall will proceed with such measured calm. Given the litigious nature of contemporary America, I have my doubts. CP