Image: British Library Board / Bridgeman

The romance and the tragedy of orchids

These flowers have entranced societies and individuals for centuries—yet now we’re leaving them to languish
October 4, 2023
Orchide Muse: A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers
Erica Hannickel (RRP: £27.99)
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The Orchid Outlaw: On a Mission to Save Britain’s Rarest Flowers
Ben Jacob (RRP: £20)
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Where I live, wildflowers peak in May and early June. Grassy hinterlands that had been, until those months, dreary patches of turf and mud suddenly spill over with buttercups, ragged robin, willowherb, common honesty, oxeye daisies. Roadside verges too are busy with white clover, self-heal and—most strikingly—dozens of pyramidal orchids stabbing upwards from the sward with unusual vegetal vigour. 

These towering mauve orchids are everywhere in Orkney in June, self-propagating in window-boxes and plant-pots, bursting from unlikely spots, heavy headed and many-tiered. And they are treated with an unusual deference; council workers strim carefully around them, leaving a protective halo of long grass around each bloom. Orchids, generally, are flowers that arouse curious passion: over many centuries, their rarer varieties have been collected, stolen, sold for small fortunes, used as headpieces and corsages, transported around the world at vast expense, and pampered in specially built hothouses. 

It is the plant’s “lascivious architecture and otherworldly beauty” that is the root of the “orchidelirium” that has taken hold of various cultures at various times, argues Erica Hannickel in her beautifully produced book Orchid Muse: A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers. In it, she introduces us to a series of fanatics who have celebrated, cultivated and coveted these delicate blooms, starting with the heavy-breathing, bosom-heaving love poems of plant procreation by Enlightenment polymath Erasmus Darwin, and taking in the fuukiran (“orchids of the rich and noble”) beloved in feudal Japan; the soft power symbolised by the flower arrangements of Chinese empress Cixi; and the roaring trade for exotic orchids in gilded age New York, where industrialists flaunted their wealth by vying for individual specimens that cost as much as $35,000 in today’s money.

Darwin’s 1791 prose poem The Botanic Garden presented a lurid vision of orchids as “threatening seductresses” engaged in “vegetable adultery”, or occasionally chastely guarding their “honey cups” from “panting plunderers”. In this, writes Hannickel, he was merely dramatising the cutting-edge science of the time: Carl Linnaeus’s identification of flower reproductive organs, and the reframing of the flower head as “marriage bed”. Though perhaps the most brazen, Darwin was far from the first to be struck by the carnal thrust of orchid blooms. “Raw sexuality” is encoded in the plant’s etymology: orchis is an ancient Greek word for testicle, and the name of the vanilla orchid (source of the sweet-smelling spice) descends, indirectly, from the Latin vaginae.

Charles Darwin’s book on orchids was what won the sceptics over to his theory of evolution

Erasmus Darwin formulated one of the first scientific descriptions of evolution, but it would be his grandson Charles—whose “little book on orchids”, The Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862), was published as a follow-up to his most groundbreaking work, On the Origin of Species (1859)—who would produce the more impactful work of orchid literature. The sheer strangeness of the orchid family offered numerous convincing examples of adaptation—such as those species that have developed petals patterned or perfumed to mimic certain insects, so as to fool pollinators into attempting to copulate with them. Ultimately, argues Hannickel, the younger Darwin’s modest, narrowly focused book was what won the sceptics over to his theory of evolution. 

Elsewhere, Hannickel introduces us to Edmond Albius, an enslaved teenager who, in 1841, became the first person to hand-pollinate the vanilla orchid, thus paving the way for a global boom in vanilla propagation now worth $1.2bn annually. Though later freed, Albius himself died “a destitute and miserable end”. We also meet Raymond Burr, a gay Hollywood film star—and the original Perry Mason—who coupled his heteronormative screen presence in noirs and westerns with a parallel life as an orchid breeder and gardening entrepreneur.

Orchids are flowers, yes, but they are also a prism through which to view society, suggests Hannickel. They “provide insight into human history, reveal intricate personal and international relationships, stand as dynamic political symbols, and reveal our constantly changing tastes in beautiful living things.” For all their delicacy, they have “driven humans into insanity and poverty, been a source of commerce and obsessions, and inspired artistic works of stunning beauty and originality.”

Orchid Muse is a learned and interestingly hybrid text: part essay collection and part handbook. Every chapter offers, to close, an introduction to a specific orchid with helpful advice on how best to grow it, plus notes on fragrance and bloom. It’s a nice idea, and the result would make a lovely gift; the tightly written and well-digested histories expand its utility beyond the how-to guide.

Despite their apparent ubiquity here in Orkney, and the breezy tone of Hannickel’s instructions, orchids are not easy plants to grow—as Ben Jacob finds to his cost in The Orchid Outlaw, an entertaining if somewhat self-congratulatory account of his unofficial and occasionally environmentally reckless attempts to “rewild” southwest England by way of plant relocations.

Jacob spent his early adulthood travelling the world in search of exotic specimens, but—after a brush with his own mortality sent him home to the UK to convalesce—he discovered the joy of the humble orchid, 52 varieties of which can be found throughout the UK. This was, he says, “a revelation”. Far from being drably familiar, British orchids were stranger and more beautiful than he could have imagined: he met “flowers shaped like little people, insects, boiled eggs with a spoonful taken out of the top, graceful winged birds, tassels, columns and pyramids; pillars of flowers ranging from moon-white, through sun-yellows and entire palettes of pinks, magentas, violets, purples and scarlets.” There were plants “smaller than my thumb”, others with “flower spikes a metre tall”. Others “smelled of goat or honey or cloves.” All of this was growing on his doorstep, no jet-setting required.

Not that they were easy to find. Many varieties are rare or endangered. Every one of them is in decline. This came as a surprise to Jacob, who had apparently assumed Britain to be some kind of conservation paragon—not like those faraway world countries he’d been flying off to. He finds himself stalking untidy verges in industrial estates and tramping through sand dunes in search of unusual specimens, and becomes alarmed by the danger many of these plants are facing: property developments that will see pastures, woods and scrublands torn up and replaced with tarmac and newbuild housing. Coming soon—warns a banner over one of the last known patches of “autumn lady’s tresses”, a once-common aromatic orchid that has been quietly vanishing—The Meadows: Development of Luxury 2, 3 and 4 Bedroom Homes. “The name of this development and that of so many others — Cherrytree Vista, The Elms, West Orchard — are ironic reminders of what they are destroying,” observes Jacob grimly.

This is how he justifies his descent into life as an “orchid outlaw”. He shins over fences in the dead of night to dig plants from their homes, then carries them away in his rucksack. “Uprooting any wild plant is illegal,” he notes. Yet “crushing plants with an excavator or pulverising them with a golf club” is not. It makes no sense. Certain species of orchids are protected from intentional damage, but the laws, he complains, are largely useless or ignored. Plus, he adds, it’s boring to pursue things through official channels: he wants to spend his time “saving orchids, not writing emails”.

One can sympathise. Still, for a self-proclaimed outlaw, he’s very interested in rules—largely, it seems, for the purposes of pointing out how bravely he flouts them. He grabs and runs in the moonlight, and later plants his smuggled specimens in public spaces such as roadsides, roundabouts and car parks. There’s something admirable in this dedication to direct action, which does carry with it a small but real chance of punishment, but also something irritatingly self-serving in the way he reports it. It is not enough that he should save plants; he wants his effort to be noticed and celebrated by the public. He scours social media for the muted response.

Much of the time, he admits, his “well-intentioned bumbling” fails. The replanted orchids often die or disappear in a season, crowded out by weeds. Orchids are fussy: they need the right pH, the right fungal networks, the right temperatures. It’s too much work for too little reward, and the “doomed” orchids he was “saving” are dying in any case. 

Later, he settles on a new approach: seed bombing using seeds grown at home in a high-tech “orchid orchard”. These scenes, in which he lives out a sort of horticultural Breaking Bad in his kitchen, featuring second-hand chemistry equipment bought online and a great deal of incompetent bungling, are extremely funny and appealing. Finally he manages to blend himself seed-powder mixes to scatter wherever he goes. When excited reports appear on X (formerly Twitter) of hundreds of bee orchids popping up “opposite a customer collection point at a shopping centre off the A30”, he has had the breakthrough he’s been searching for. He is “choked, astonished, flooded with elation and disbelief”. 

There are a few more bum notes, not least the whiff of nativism in Jacob’s claim that, as an Englishman whose “ancestors’ bones lie in that earth,” he might consider it all his own to do with as he pleases. Nor could I shake my reservation that the rules around transporting rare species are strict for a reason—and his amateurish and ecologically reckless efforts do nothing to allay that.

At its core, though, it is difficult to take issue with his thesis: that something must be done to avert ecological catastrophe. Two hundred and seventy-seven species of plants in England—just under 20 per cent—are at risk of extinction. Jacob is taking action. Others should too, in better ways.