Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy

by Eric Hansen

Published by Pantheon Books

272 pages, 2000


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Stalking the Wild Orchid

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

The exotic hothouse world of orchid-growing is fertile territory for any author intrepid enough to explore its eccentric realms. Seasoned American travel writer Eric Hansen fell down the rabbit-hole and emerged into this strange Wonderland almost by accident. He had become something of an expert on plant life in Borneo from researching a past book, so when two orchid enthusiasts needed a guide to help them find a rare species called paphiopedilum sanderianum, Hansen seemed the ideal choice.

"It's the holy grail of orchids," one of the men told him. "Maybe only a dozen botanists on earth have seen it bloom in the wild. It has the whole orchid world in turmoil. Conservationists, scientists, and commercial growers are at each other's throats over the plant."

At each other's throats? And what was this "orchid world" he was talking about? Hansen was intrigued. "I had always thought of orchids in terms of corsages to be worn at high school proms in the 1950s," he admitted. Plunging through the rain forests of Fire Mountain in Borneo with the two men (who insisted on bringing civilization with them in the form of a cardboard toilet), Hansen came to realize he had stumbled on a goldmine. Orchids had spawned a mysterious kind of subculture, with its adherents becoming so addicted that they were willing to go to any length -- even the jungles of Borneo -- to collect rare species.

Though it took him almost seven years to amass all the orchid lore in this entertaining and absorbing book, Hansen very quickly became hooked on the subject himself: not so much on the flowers as on the gallery of eccentrics who grow them. "I don't want to give the impression that perfectly normal, healthy, thoughtful and balanced people are not drawn to orchids. I am told they exist. I just didn't have much luck finding them."

What Hansen did find was the aptly named Terry Root, "a bearded, 250-pound, cigar-smoking, beer-drinking, kick-ass biker with a pony tail who breeds exotic orchids for a living." Root attempts to explain his fixation to the author: "Orchid-breeding? It's an illness, an addiction. The species purists say it's unnatural, this practice of cross-pollinating orchids, but in the end that's what it takes to create something unique and beautiful." Some of Terry's hybrids go by names like Cyberspace, Flasher, 180 Proof, Jail Bait and Eat My Dust.

Then there is the enthusiast who was nearly overwhelmed by an orchid's sensual fragrance: "An elderly little scarecrow of a woman scurried forward. She took a quick sniff of the flower, batted her eyelashes, then rocked back on the heels of her sensible walking shoes and in a breathless, high-pitched voice said, "Wildly... sexy.'"

The blatant sexuality of the flowers may help explain the spell they cast over so many people. Leafing through an orchid catalogue, Hansen begins to feel he is looking at pornography: "Immediately I was confronted with centerfolds showing downy, smooth petals and moistened, hot-pink lips that pouted in the direction of tautly curved shafts and heavily veined pouches."

But there is another draw even more powerful than the flower's obvious physical charms. The worldwide retail orchid business is estimated at around $9 billion annually, and with a great many natural habitats under threat, rare species are escalating in value. Such dollar figures and endangerment inevitably lead to regulations, and a Geneva-based organization called CITES has sewn things up so tightly that even amateur collectors live in fear that their greenhouses will be raided for inadvertent infringement of the rules.

Hansen finds real irony in the fact that while it may be perfectly legal to flood an orchid habitat for a hydroelectric project, the tight web of CITES regulations makes it nearly impossible to remove the plants for the purposes of conservation. Those who go ahead with it live under threat of heavy fines, confiscation of plants by armed men with attack dogs and even prison sentences. These overprotective laws get under Hansen's skin sufficiently that he spends a great many chapters outlining CITES's more outrageous excesses. These sections can get a little tedious, as Hansen has already made his point and doesn't need to belabor it.

However, Hansen shines when profiling such orchid giants as the enigmatic and elusive Henry Azadehdel, who made international headlines and served time in prison for smuggling orchids. Azadehdel's life would be the stuff of fiction, except that it's all a little too unbelievable. Then there is the teenaged "orchid prodigy" Xavier Garreau de Loubresse. This young man was winning international awards at 15, but Hansen was startled to learn that he has an impressive collection of shotguns and sometimes takes target-practice at the walls of his apartment in Paris. He also plays the harpsichord in his spare time.

Hansen's real fascination with these strange characters shines through, as does his curiosity. His own version of orchid fever takes him from the jungles of Borneo to the marshes of Minnesota to Kew Gardens in England and even to Istanbul, where he eats an ice cream made from the roots of orchis provincialis. How does it taste? He detects "a hint of mushrooms, yak butter and the smell of a goat on a rainy day."

Hansen's funny, earthy style is so beguiling that you hardly realize you're absorbing a great deal of esoteric information. But it seldom bogs down in dry facts due to the gallery of eccentrics Hansen continually meets at orchid shows, such as the "large man with fleshy lips who told me that if I licked the mealy-coated callus of Maxillania huebschii, my tongue would go numb." Then there is this vignette when Hansen is sitting with his native guides in Borneo:

I heard a distant rustle of leaves, a stifled cry, and what sounded like a body falling off a collapsible cardboard toilet. Bati and Katong looked at each other and then shook their heads. It was time to go home.

If Hansen had edited out a few of his rants against CITES and substituted color plates of some of these exotic species (the ink drawings just don't do them justice), Orchid Fever would be just about perfect. As it is, it's a pleasurable, quirky, educational, and often laugh-out-loud funny book with a real enthusiasm for its subject matter. Open this book and you'll fall into a strange but highly entertaining horticultural Wonderland. | May 2000

 

Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 100 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has just finished her first novel, A Singing Tree.