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From Barnes & NobleBarnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Whatever the reason for their particular appeal, orchids, since their arrival in America in 1838, have come to symbolize elegance. Yet essayist Susan Orlean uncovers the rough drama behind the flower's history, recounting tales of paid professional hunters who met their deaths through drowning, fever, and murder in locales like Bhamo, Myanmar, Panama, and Ecuador. Contemporary Florida, it turns out, is a hotbed for the shady side of orchid mania, and it is there that Orlean meets the "thief" of her title, John Laroche. A reckless iconoclast, Laroche is an orchid breeder who gleefully cooks seeds in his microwave. After the wealthy Seminole tribe hires him to run a nursery, he concocts a grandiose scheme to obtain a rare "ghost" orchid from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and clone it. The slight hitch is that, under Florida's Endangered Species law, it's illegal to collect wild orchids. The Seminoles, however, consider themselves at war with America, and Laroche enlists a few members to commit the actual theft, assuming that Native Americans are exempt from government law. After stuffing 200 orchids into pillowcases, Laroche and his cohorts are arrested, and Laroche is convicted.
Orlean hopes Laroche will offer her insight into orchid mania, and he makes a lively, contrary companion as he guides her through Florida's often bizarre botanical subculture. In Palm Beach mansions and low-rent bungalows, at conferences, galas, and greenhouses, she is introduced to devotees who regale her with accounts of rivalries and discoveries, of lives both ruined and enlightened by a passion for "the most compelling and maddening of all collectible living things." In the end, Orlean herself succumbs to orchid mania and makes a heart-of-darkness trek into the frightening Fakahatchee swamp, taking the reader on a fascinating journey in which obsession ultimately becomes, in her vision, an optimistic belief in "the perfectibility of some living thing" and its power to transform our lives.