Orchid Fever

Hansen, Eric. Orchid Fever: a Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Reason read: April is when everyone starts thinking about their gardens. Probably not orchids, though…I also needed a book for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge in the category of a true non-violent crime. Groundskeepers at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, call the exhibits the largest collection of horticultural loot and with words like racket, exploitation, trafficking, plundering, smuggling, and pirating I think I found the right book..

Hansen knows how to get the reader’s attention. Orchid Fever opens with a human body falling through a rain forest canopy. His guide, Tiong, seemingly fell out of the sky. Hansen was on the island of Borneo to see help build an upriver plant nursery for the Penan people. How is this for a cryptic meeting time and place: “The message was for them to meet us at the junction of the Limbang and Medalam rivers on the full moon of the fourth month of 1993” (p 8)?
He approaches his subject of orchid crime with a sense of skepticism at first. He calls these orchid-obsessed horticulturalists, “orchid people” as if they are some kind of alien race and yet, he travels the globe to meet them and start using words like racket, exploitation, trafficking, plunder, pirating, and smuggling to describe their behavior. Soon Hansen realizes these “orchid people” are so passionate about their orchids some can be driven to actual violence if provoked. It also seems that every time a legitimate researcher gets a shipment of orchids no matter how lawfully or innocently, that’s when the trouble starts. But orchids are not just for flower shows and smuggling. Hansen travels to Turkey and learns about how orchid ice cream is made from the tubers of a specific orchid. A flour made from the dried tubers creates a chewy, almost elastic texture. He also learns of the medicinal properties of orchids with such claims as the ability to heal a damaged spleen, prevent cholera and tuberculosis, facilitate childbirth, and improve sex life. Orchis in Greek does mean testicle…Along those lines, you will be introduced to the term ‘phyto-necrophilia.’ It is the “abnormal fascination or love of a dead plant material. Yes, it’s a thing. Hansen also travels to Minnesota, an area you don’t readily think of for orchids, to meet a man who tries to save orchids from being bulldozed in developing areas.

As an aside, I thought about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf a lot while reading Orchid Fever.

Quotes to quote, “It was about this time that I got into the habit of taping my comp disks to the backs of cereal boxes in the kitchen cabinets” (p 68).
A sense of Hansen’s dry sense of humor, “We also called on Kemal Kucukonderuzunkoluk (pronounced Kucukonderuzunkkoluk), who operates one of the oldest ice creams stores in Maras” (p 97) and “Sitting at the table, an uneasy feeling came over me as I realized it was quite possible that I was the strange one” (p 234).

Soundtrack: Rockin’ Dopsie and the Cajun Twisters.

Author fact: Hansen also wrote The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer, Motoring with Mohammed and Stranger in the Forest. All three books are on my Challenge list and I am looking forward to reading them.

Book trivia: Each chapter is punctuated with a beautiful black and white illustration of an orchid.

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Orchid Fever other than to explain the plot and say Orchid Fever compliments Susan Orlean’s book of the same subject, The Orchid Thief.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Dewey Deconstructed: 300s” (p 62).



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