Vertigo

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.

To someone like me, largely concerned to investigate the role of drug plants now and in the past, all three books are a reminder that species without psychoactive properties can produce the same mixture of irrationality, obsession and intoxication as their chemically better endowed cousins. The analogy between orchidodelirium and drug plants is not lost on Orlean, who remarks that ‘the passion for plants was, for many of the people I was getting to know, more potent than any drug at all.’ Like drug-trafficking, orchid-smuggling is big business. In one recent case, Houston customs agents caught two men each carrying 16 orchids wired to their bodies, a haul with a black market price of $320,000.

The Orchid Thief is full of twists and turns. At first it seems as if it is going to be a biographical account of the trickster figure of John Laroche, one of the thieves in question. Laroche is an obsessive collector, having been through passionate affairs with turtles, fossils and tropical fish before committing himself to orchids – at least for some of the time Orlean knew him. It is at a court hearing involving Laroche and three Seminole Indians accused of stealing orchids from the wild that she first meets him in the flesh. Laroche, in typical megalomaniac style, was under the illusion that the tribal status of his partners in crime would allow them to evade Florida law and set him firmly on the road to riches. He aimed to produce new varieties of orchids by means of mutation techniques using a microwave oven and household chemicals.

Gradually, Laroche cedes his place in the story to other orchid fanatics and the expected biography turns out to be more a study of the character of the orchid than of any one of its victims. The protean appearance of orchids is legendary. As Orlean writes,

One species looks just like a German shepherd dog with its tongue sticking out. One species looks like an onion. One looks like an octopus. One looks like a human nose. One looks like the kind of fancy shoes that a king might wear. One looks like Mickey Mouse. One looks like a monkey. One looks dead.

Orlean’s book is a fascinating account of one remarkable life form in pursuit of another, the cast of fanatics being as weird and wonderful as the hybrids themselves. Each new variant inevitably receives its own name – Dee Dee’s Fat Lip and Raspberry Delight among them – revealing thereby the secular and often trivial nature of the cult’s adherents. There are various subspecies in this modern nomenclature, such as those named after First Ladies – the Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton – and a whole subculture surrounding the orchid world: orchid baby-sitters, orchid doctors, even orchid boarding-houses, as well as a virtual cosmos of orchidodelirium on the Internet.

Orlean shows how the contemporary cult was foreshadowed by even more fanatical collectors in the past. Frederick Sander, the grandmaster, had 23 orchid-hunters in the field to feed his insatiable appetite, and the number of plants involved was staggering. One of Sander’s men in South America sent him a single shipment weighing 30 tons. Another, a German named Micholitz, proved himself a true believer when he wrote to his employer on hearing of the imminent outbreak of the First World War: ‘I suppose if it comes to a universal war, there will be very little demand for orchids.’

The destruction of wild orchids during the 19th and early 20th centuries was part of the wider picture of colonial savagery. Cemeteries in New Guinea and Burma were plundered and orchids growing on human remains shipped home for auction still attached to skulls and bones: nothing, it seems, could stand in the way of an intrepid hunter and his employer. Both in the field and in the marketplace, orchids inspired fervour and frenzy. Orchidodelirium reached its zenith in Victorian England, where it echoed the outbreak of Dutch tulipomania in the 1630s.

The Tulip, written by a modern high priestess of the cult, is destined to achieve Biblical status. The illustrations are superb and both the author (for hunting them down) and the publisher (for reproducing them to such a high standard) must take credit. The book is divided into two parts. The first traces the intertwined history of humans and tulips; the second is an account of the wild species and cultivars.

The tulip is native to Central Asia, and like the nomadic hordes, swept westward from the steppes. Before invading Christendom it had entranced the Persians and Turks. The sultans of the Ottoman Empire, with an enthusiasm to rival that of any Victorian orchid fiend, sent their subjects far afield in search of tulips and their aesthetic appreciation was exemplified in their naming of the flowers. Names like Light of the Mind and Those that Burn the Heart are worlds removed from such modern varieties as Mickey Mouse and Hit Parade. The reign of Sultan Ahmed III (1703-30) is even known to historians as the Tulip Era: his extravaganzas included sumptuous tulip festivals held in gardens illuminated by candles carried on the backs of wandering tortoises. The Sultan’s passion brought about his downfall when his subjects became resentful of the inordinate sums he was paying to Dutch dealers.

By this time, the Dutch had recovered somewhat from their own tulip-induced financial vertigo. Reckless investors from all walks of life – schoolteachers, swineherds and coffee-grinders among them – had thrown themselves into the wild speculations surrounding the tulip craze of the 1630s. The virus had been caught from France, where in one instance a single bulb had been exchanged for a thriving brewery business.

There are many similarities between the irrational fervour provoked by the tulip and the orchid but there are marked differences between the accounts given by Pavord and Orlean. Although Pavord is a willing victim of tulipomania her book does not evoke the crazed world of fanatics conjured up by Orlean. Is this difference attributable to the racy style of the latter’s book and the patient prose of the former? Or to the nature of the plants themselves – the elegant neatness of the tulip as against the ebullience of the orchid? It seems that the characteristics of the flowers attract people who share them.

The Western cults of the orchid and tulip sometimes reached levels approaching religious fervour. In other parts of the world, plants have sometimes had a genuinely religious aura. In his Plants of life, Plants of Death Simoons cities details from a colonial census of religious affiliations in the northwest provinces of British India. More than a thousand individuals refused to describe themselves as Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, insisting that they were simply worshippers of tulsi, or holy basil. Tulsi was seen as the manifestation in the plant kingdom of the god Vishnu and the tending of tulsi plants was more than a personal obsession, it was a religious duty. The plant has a reputation in ayurvedic medicine akin to that of ginseng in Chinese culture.

The ginseng root is believed by the Chinese to be a panacea on account of its anthropomorphic qualities and was known in ancient times as ‘man-root’. The same prestige has been accorded to the mandrake root, which has accumulated a greater body of folklore than any other plant in Europe or the Near East. Its aphrodisiac reputation goes back to Biblical times and still survives in rural areas of the Mediterranean. As the tulip and orchid were later to do, mandrakes changed hands for large sums and there was a thriving industry in counterfeit roots fashioned from bryony. But unlike ginseng, its Chinese counterpart, the mandrake also acquired a dark and sinister aura, no doubt on account of the psychoactive and noxious alkaloids present throughout the plant.

The baleful reputation of the mandrake is not difficult to explain: the negative reputation of such apparently innocuous plants as onions, garlic and black beans is more of a challenge to the historian or anthropologist. Unlike Orlean and Pavord, Simoons tries to find the reasons behind aversion as well as comparatively healthy addictions.

Alliophobia, the irrational dread of garlic (and by extension onions and leeks), has a long history. Despite garlic’s high reputation in Western cuisine and as an ingredient of a healthy lifestyle, it has traditionally been associated with witchcraft and evil; and for Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, with demons. Simoons describes the aversion to garlic in some detail, but we still don’t know why the smell of it on the breath should be thought so repellent. The taboo status of the black urd bean in India, or the fava bean among the ancient Pythagoreans, is another mystery that Simoons tries to solve, this time with more success. The fava beans cultivated in the time of Pythagoras were also black and the ban on their consumption seems to date back to the prehistoric Indo-Europeans, for whom the colour symbolised death and evil.

Having reviewed the historical evidence concerning these plants of life and death, Simoons concludes that any attempt to explain human-plant relationships solely on the basis of practical and economic factors is misguided. The ancient religious codes of Greece, India and China show clearly that the relationship is much subtler. His conclusions are of course equally applicable to contemporary human-plant relationships. In extreme cases fanatics will value their relationship with the chosen plant above human relationships and even their own life. On his deathbed, Frederick Sander wrote to a garden director: ‘This illness will be the end of me. Tell me, how are the plants I sent you? Are they still alive?’