Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Orchid Thief

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean was originally published in1998. My Ballentine paperback edition of this nonfiction book was published in 2000 and is 284 pages long (plus a reader's guide in the back). I really enjoyed this book. If you read it with the preconceived idea that it is going to be an exciting true crime story, then you will likely be very disappointed. What The Orchid Thief is is an interesting look at obsession and collecting, along with some Florida history, Seminole Tribe background, court cases, and several other topics. I found The Orchid Thief extremely entertaining and I highly recommend it.
Rating: 4

From Amazon:

Orchidelirium is the name the Victorians gave to the flower madness that is for botanical collectors the equivalent of gold fever. Wealthy orchid fanatics of that era sent explorers (heavily armed, more to protect themselves against other orchid seekers than against hostile natives or wild animals) to unmapped territories in search of new varieties of Cattleya and Paphiopedilum. As knowledge of the family Orchidaceae grew to encompass the currently more than 60,000 species and over 100,000 hybrids, orchidelirium might have been expected to go the way of Dutch tulip mania. Yet, as journalist Susan Orlean found out, there still exists a vein of orchid madness strong enough to inspire larceny among collectors.
The Orchid Thief centers on south Florida and John Laroche, a quixotic, charismatic schemer once convicted of attempting to take endangered orchids from the Fakahatchee swamp, a state preserve. Laroche, a horticultural consultant who once ran an extensive nursery for the Seminole tribe, dreams of making a fortune for the Seminoles and himself by cloning the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii. Laroche sums up the obsession that drives him and so many others:
I really have to watch myself, especially around plants. Even now, just being here, I still get that collector feeling. You know what I mean. I'll see something and then suddenly I get that feeling. It's like I can't just have something--I have to have it and learn about it and grow it and sell it and master it and have a million of it.
Even Orlean--so leery of orchid fever that she immediately gives away any plant that's pressed upon her by the growers in Laroche's circle--develops a desire to see a ghost orchid blooming and makes several ultimately unsuccessful treks into the Fakahatchee. Filled with Palm Beach socialites, Native Americans, English peers, smugglers, and naturalists as improbably colorful as the tropical blossoms that inspire them, this is a lyrical, funny, addictively entertaining read. --Barrie Trinkle

"Laroche's passions arrived unannounced and ended explosively, like car bombs."

"Schemes like these, folding virtue and criminality around profit, are Laroche's specialty. Just when you have finally concluded that he is a run-of-the-mill crook, he unveils an ulterior and somewhat principled but always lucrative reason for his crookedness."

"He is also the most moral amoral person I've ever known."

"... Florida is also the last of the American frontier. The wild part of Florida is really wild. The tame part is really tame. Both, though are always in flux..."

"[F]or years there has been an apparition wandering the swamp, the Swamp Ape, which is said to be seven feet tall and weigh seven hundred pounds and have the physique of a human, the posture of an ape, the body odor of a skunk, and an appetite for lima beans."

"Hunting clubs used to raise and fatten ordinary pigs on local farms and then let them loose in the swamp so club members could then have fun tracking them down and shooting them. Some of the pigs didn't get shot, and some of those adapted to swamp living. Their offspring are now thriving in the Fakahatchee and have been transformed into gigantic, nasty swamp pigs who are totally mad and totally wild."

"Scams and real estate schemes flourish because land in Florida is not like land anywhere else in the country. For one thing, Florida land is elastic. You can make more of it."

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