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October 2001
Vol. 10, No. 10,
p 29.
The Chemist's Bookshelf
Julie L. McDowell
Fertile hobby, stolen pleasures

The Orchid ThiefThe Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obession
Susan Orlean
Ballantine Books: New York, 2000, 284 pp, $14 paperback

“He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games.” Meet John Laroche: horticultural antihero of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. When the book opens, Laroche, a toothless Floridian and self-described genius, is accused of stealing orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, a swamp near Naples filled with exotic and endangered plants and trees.

Susan Orlean, a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1992, was first mesmerized by the story of this eccentric orchid poacher after reading a short article in a Florida newspaper, where she was surprised to see the words “orchids”, “Seminoles”, “cloning”, and “criminal” in one news brief.

Orlean is famous for writing about “ordinariness” and she uses humor and wit to describe the passions and quirky lives of everyday people in The Orchid Thief. She spent two years following Laroche around and getting to know the celebrities in the orchid world.

At the time of his arrest, Laroche was in search of the ghost orchid, Polyradicion lindenii. The Fakahatchee swamp is the only place in the United States where the ghost orchid grows because it provides “the exact kind of flotsam falling on their roots and into their flowers.”

Laroche was hired by a Seminole tribal council to build a nursery on a reservation in Hollywood, FL, and he was convinced that he would become a millionaire by cloning and reproducing the ghost orchid, and then trading the clones nationally and internationally. “It would be as if you had figured out how to multiply Siberian tigers or gemstones,” Orlean explains. “Orchid fanciers who like to have as many species as possible in their collection would seek you out, and orchid breeders looking for new gene pools would come to you, too.”

Unfortunately, such poaching is illegal. Local and federal endangered species laws protect ghost orchids; therefore, anyone who is determined to grow them must turn to the black market or theft for the initial stock. This black market is exactly what appeals to Laroche. He envisions making millions on these ghost orchids, and as Orlean finds out, orchid enthusiasts would easily spend that kind of money, making his dream seem less removed from reality than one might initially suspect. Furthermore, Laroche was accompanied by three Seminole Indians in the robbery, so he’s not really too worried about the trial. According to him, an obscure (or little-known) state law allows Florida Indians to collect endangered plants and animals out of respect for their tribal customs.

More for the Shelf
Plant Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Peter J. Lea and Richard C. Leegood (Editors). John Wiley & Sons, 1999

The Orchid in Lore and Legend Luigi Berliocchi, Mark Griffiths (Editor), and Leonore Rosenberg (Translator). Timber Press, 2000

Taylor’s Guide to Orchids Judy White. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996

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

Throughout The Orchid Thief, Orlean introduces “famous Orchid people”, each with their own ideas about prize-winning orchid cultivation in pursuit of the “Best in Show” award at the American Orchid Society competitions. For example there’s Tom and Trudy Fennel, who operated Orchid Jungle in Homestead, FL, an attraction that drew over 50,000 tourists a season in its prime. Then there’s the infamous Bob Fuchs, owner of R.F. Orchids in south Florida, an object of awe and jealously because of his legacy of award-winning orchids. Fuchs made local headlines in 1990 when he was the victim of an orchid heist—$150,000 worth of prize-winning orchids were stolen from his nursery and the perpetrators have never been found.

After exploring the manic world of orchid devotion, it’s obvious that while Laroche is eccentric, he is by no means alone. As Orlean discovers, this passionate fascination for flowers really reflects a quest to transcend the mundane and boring aspects of life.

“I never thought very many people in the world were very much like John Laroche,” Orlean writes, “but I realized more and more that he was only an extreme, not an aberration—that most people in some way or another strive for something exceptional, something to pursue, even at their peril, rather than abide an ordinary life.”

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