Richard Rudgley

  • The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean
    Heinemann, 348 pp, £12.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 434 00783 8
  • The Tulip by Anna Pavord
    Bloomsbury, 438 pp, £30.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 7475 4296 1
  • Plants of Life, Plants of Death by Frederick Simoons
    Wisconsin, 568 pp, £27.95, September 1998, ISBN 0 299 15904 3

The human need for plants extends far beyond simple utilitarian requirements of food, clothing and shelter – there is a yearning for them which is aesthetic, obsessive, sometimes religious. These three books explore the nature of this more subtle relationship between the vegetable kingdom and ourselves. Susan Orlean approaches the shadowy world of orchid fanatics in Florida as an outsider, but one mindful of the inherent danger in her attempt to understand the nature of obsession. She is quick to pass on orchids given to her by addicts in case she, too, comes under their spell. Anna Pavord has no such reservations: she is a self-confessed tulipomaniac. ‘There must be one or two people in the world that choose not to like tulips,’ she remarks disdainfully, ‘but such an aberration is barely credible.’ Why people avoid some plants and revere others is the subject of Frederick Simoons’s meticulous study of the ancient religious roots from which comparatively modern manifestations such as orchidodelirium and tulipomania ultimately derive.

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