Thursday, 17 November 2011

Festive wish list: a leaf through some botanical books

IF YOU collect orchids, you collect orchid books.

While the old orchid hunters scoured the jungles and mountains for the most exotic species, I’ve had the luxury of tracking down some prize literary specimens from the comfort of my ergonomic chair, although the Amazon did feature in a way.

If you’re a fan of the Dorling Kindersley pop-up and peek books, The Plant Hunters (£30 RRP, Amazon £25.50) is irresistible. Author and journalist Carolyn Fry has directed her skills in science, conservation and natural history, to focus on man’s obsession with plants. The lushly illustrated volume comes with all manner of twiddly bits to play with. One chapter is devoted to people’s passion for orchids, and it concludes in a rather grown-up manner with modern plant hunters and the changing role of the botanic garden.

If you don’t mind diluting your orchids further, try Flower hunters, by Mary Gribbin, which Stephen Moss, The Guardian provocatively describes as a ‘compelling romp through the history of plant collecting’.

Personally, I prefer the epic grandeur of In Pursuit of Plants by Philip Short, although the title gives no indication of the sheer bonkerosity of the characters he tracks across the five continents, driven to collect their specimens. The index of his book on the experiences of 19th- and early 20th-century plant collectors alone is diverting: flies, abominable (Australian); camels, poisoned; caterpillars, irritant; accommodation, sinister; lamas, hunted by; grisly bear, attack by; rattlesnakes, congregation of; insects, collection lost due to tribal warfare; Richard Spruce, plot to kill … You might find it easier to get a second-hand copy from the states.

The Scots have always had a huge role in horticultural history, such as the likes of John Veitch who in 1768 came to England to find his fortune, starting out as a gardener for the aristocracy. Realising that horticultural mania had begun to spread throughout the social classes, John’s son James opened a nursery in Exeter and began to send some of the first commercial plant collectors into the Americas, Australia, India, Japan, China and the South Seas. In Seeds of Fortune: A Great Gardening Dynasty (£18.99 RRP, Amazon £16.14), Ms Shephard waxes lyrical on orchid mania and lost orchids in particular. Diverting and beautifully written.

Despite the amount of material on the craziness of orchid collectors, there’s really only one book around on the subject, and it is a little dated now. Orchid Fever, by Eric Hansen (£8.99 RRP, Amazon £8.09) is summed up by its subtitle, A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy. 

It starts off with Hansen travelling in the Borneo rain forest to accompany two American orchid growers in their search for Paphiopedilum sanderianum, the holy grail of orchids, and one of the rarest plants in the world. Hansen himself became obsessed with the obsession, and describes a global odyssey in his attempt to understand the perennial seduction of the orchid.

Finally, one to put on next year’s wish list is The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World's Most Beautiful Orchid by Craig Pittman, which has the experts raving. ‘If I did not know most of the main players I would have thought the author had a vivid and twisted imagination,’ exclaims one critic.

With a whiff of the Maltese Falcon, this is a true tale of obsession, greed, and lust for the unobtainable. Critics agree that the author has captured the extreme competition, unique characters, and general insanity that often typify the orchid world.

The star of the story? The infamous Phragmipedium kovachii, a rare slipper orchid discovered in Peru in 2002, became the rarest and most sought-after orchid in the world. Prices soared to $10,000 on the black market. Then one showed up at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

The clash between Selby’s scientists and the smugglers of the rare orchid, led to search warrants, a grand jury investigation, and criminal charges. It made headlines around the country, cost the gardens hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, and led to tremendous turmoil and the exposure of true orchid obsessives – all revealed by investigative journalist Craig Pittman in a real-life mystery novel (available April 2012).

The Orchid Seekers, Project Gutenberg
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland, Chimborazo, Gemälde von Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810), wikimedia
Paphiopedilum sanderianum, as illustrated by John Day, 1886, wikimedia