Monday, 26 December 2011

Reading to fuel your passion

If you’re looking for orchid-related books to use up those Christmas gift vouchers, take a look at The Orchid Trilogy, among the great ‘hidden masterpieces’ of English fiction, according to The Guardian.

This quirky title, which hit the best-seller list recently, comprises three strangely moving autobiographical novels: The Military Orchid; A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral.
Written by a classic orchid maniac of the first water, Jocelyn Brooke was obsessed by his strange twin passions for orchids and, would you believe, fireworks.

Brooke’s love affair with wild flowers and home-made fireworks began as a boy in Kent. But there was one particular elusive flower that captured his attention. Over three decades and through two world wars, in the deserts of Libya and the woodlands of Italy, in the chalk downs of England, he searched continually for the elusive Orchis militaris, the military orchid.

The stories recreate a poignant picture of England at war and peace in the 20th century. The Military Orchid is something of a comic masterpiece. Kingsley Amis described Brooke as ‘brilliant and exciting’, John Betjeman called him ‘as subtle as the devil’, and to Anthony Powell he was ‘one of the most interesting and talented’ writers to emerge after the Second World War.

Not bad for someone who was sent down from university and struggled to find his way in life as he struggled to become a writer. He was alternately indulged by his family or forced to get a job: he tried (unsuccessfully) bookselling, publishing, even working as a wine merchant in Folkestone. As the 1930s unfolded, he suffered periods of depression and illness. He wrote voluminously but managed to publish only an article on fireworks.

One writer who influenced him most was Marcel Proust, whose A la Recherche du Temps Perdu revolves around themes of time – and well-documented references to cattleya.

In The Military Orchid, Brooke uses botany a way of looking at the world, of categorising and describing other human beings. With great subtlety, he makes out of the botanical obsession – something longed for, but never found – a metaphor for life itself.

Interestingly, Brooke also depicts orchids in his single children’s book, The Wonderful Summer, which revolves around a botanical hoax: the deliberate planting of the rare Ghost Orchid to fool an orchid collector.

Another title for book collectors is Deceptive Beauties: The World of Wild Orchids by Michael Pollan with photographs by Christian Ziegler, published by University of Chicago Press.

Although John Ruskin condemned them as ‘prurient apparitions’, across the centuries orchids have captivated the public with their elaborate exoticism, their powerful perfumes, and their sublime seductiveness. Read of wild tales of orchid conquest, and hear how these flowers can survive and thrive in the harshest of environments, from tropical cloud forests to the Arctic, from semi-deserts to rocky mountainsides. What other flowers, after all, can mimic the pheromones and even appearance of female insects, so much so that some male bees prefer intimacy with the orchids over sex with other bees?

Orchids rate a mention, not surprisingly, in Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws (David & Charles). Laws is fascinated by the profound impact plants have on our everyday lives and takes us on a colourful tour to the plants that have had the greatest impact on human civilisation – from rice and wheat that feed whole populations, to herbs and spices that are highly prized for their medicinal qualities, with a few diversions past pineapples, sweet peas, mulberry, tulip … and vanilla.

In a world first for online publishing, New Zealand has come up with a Make your own plant books system. It works by automatically harvesting information and images from the New Zealand Plant Network’s website. Site users select any combination of native or exotic plant species, from orchids to moss, to include in their own personalised book. They then select a cover type, write their own title, choose a species to feature on the cover, write their own introduction or select a pre-written one. This innovative conservation initiative is sure to boost knowledge about New Zealand’s natural world.

Keep an eye open for a seminal orchid book due out later this year, although perhaps not your typical coffee table volume.

Orchidaceae is the largest monocotyledon family and perhaps the largest plant family in terms of number of species, approximately 25,000. However, it remains one of the least understood. The fossil record is poor, and active research has been relatively scarce until recent years, in part because of the sheer size and cosmopolitan distribution of the family.


The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has squared up to the issue. With one of the oldest collections of living tropical orchids and more orchid scientists than any other single scientific institution, it is appropriate that it has made itself the hub for the monumental series on orchids. Genera Orchidacearum (GO) is set to run to stonking six volumes. Numbers 1-5 have been published and the last one is scheduled to appear in 2012.

Each volume offers a comprehensive treatment for each genus, including complete nomenclature, description, distribution (with map), anatomy, palynology, cytogenetics, phytochemistry, phylogenetics, pollination, ecology, and economic uses. Cultivation notes are included for those genera known to be in hobbyist collections – complete with line drawings and colour photographs. Although priced at £125 each, these are surely the ultimate in orchid reference.

PK