The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women and the Green World

The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women and the Green World

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865475595
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/01/2001
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.29(h) x 1.03(d)

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The Orchidaceac are a large, ancient family of perennial plants with one fertile stamen and a three-petaled flower. One petal is unlike the other two. In most orchid species this petal is enlarged into a pouch or lip and is the most conspicuous part of the flower. There are close to forty thousand known orchid species, and there may be thousands more that haven't yet been discovered and maybe thousands that once lived on earth and are now extinct. Humans have created another hundred thousand hybrids by cross-fertilizing one species with another or by crossing different hybrids to one another in plant-breeding labs.

Orchids are considered the most highly evolved flowering plants on earth. They are unusual in form, uncommonly beautiful in color, often powerfully fragrant, intricate in structure, and different from any other family of plants. The reason for their unusualness has always been puzzled over. One guess is that orchids might have evolved in soil that was naturally irradiated by a meteor or mineral deposit, and that the radiation is what mutated them into thousands of amazing forms. Orchids have diverse and unflowerlike looks. 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. One was described in the 1845 Botanical Registry as looking like "an old-fashioned head-dress peeping over one of those starched high collars such as ladies wore in the days of Queen Elizabeth; or through a horse-collar decorated with gaudy ribbons." There are species that look like butterflies, bats, ladies' handbags, bees, swarms of bees, female wasps, clamshells, roots, camel hoofs, squirrels, nuns dressed in their wimples, and drunken old men. The genus Dracula is blackish-red and looks like a vampire bat. Polyrrhiza lindenii, the Fakahatchee's ghost orchid, looks like a ghost but has also been described as looking like a bandy-legged dancer, a white frog, and a fairy. Many wild orchids in Florida have common names based on their looks: crooked-spur, brown, rigid, twisted, shiny-leafed, cow horn, lipped, snake, leafless beaked, rat tail, mule-car, shadow witch, water spider, false water spider, ladies' tresses, and false ladies' tresses. In 1678, the botanist Jakob Breyne wrote: "The manifold shape of these flowers arouses our highest admiration. They take on the form of little birds, of lizards, of insects. They look like a man, like a woman, sometimes like an austere, sinister fighter, sometimes like a clown who excites our laughter. They represent the image of a lazy tortoise, a melancholy toad, an agile, ever-chattering monkey." Orchids have always been thought of as beautiful but strange. A wildflower guide published in 1917 called them "our queer freaks."


The smallest orchids are microscopic, and the biggest ones have masses of flowers as large as footballs. Botanists reported seeing a cow-horn orchid in the Fakahatchee with normal-sized flowers and thirty-four pseudo-bulbs, which are the bulging tuber-shaped growths at the base of the plant where its energy is stored, each one over ten inches long. Some orchid flowers have petals as soft as powder, and other species have flowers as rigid and rubbery as inner tubes. Raymond Chandler wrote that orchids have the texture of human flesh. Orchids' colors are extravagant. They can be freckled or mottled or veiny or solid, from the nearly neon to spotless white. Most species are more than one color — they'll have ivory petals and a hot pink lip, maybe, or green petals with burgundy stripes, or yellow petals with olive speckles and a purple lip with a smear of red underneath. Some orchids have color combinations you wouldn't be caught dead wearing. Some look like the results of an accident involving paint. There are white orchids, but there is no such thing as a black orchid, even though people have been wanting a black orchid forever. It was black-orchid extract that Basil St. John, the comic-book character who was the boyfriend of comic-book character Brenda Starr, needed in order to control his rare and mysterious blood disease. I once asked Bob Fuchs, the owner of R.F. Orchids in Homestead, Florida, if he thought a black orchid would ever be discovered or be produced by hybridizing. "No. Never in real life," he said. "Only in Brenda Starr"


Many plants pollinate themselves, which guarantees that they will reproduce and keep their species alive. The disadvantage of self-pollination is that it recycles the same genetic material over and over, so self-pollinating species endure but don't evolve or improve themselves. Self-pollinated plants remain simple and common — weeds. Complex plants rely on cross-fertilization. Their pollen has to be spread from one plant to another, either by the wind or by birds or moths or bees. Cross-pollinating plants are usually complex in form. They have to be shaped so that their pollen is stored someplace where it can be lifted by a passing breeze, or they have to be found attractive by lots of pollinating insects, or they must be so well suited and so appealing to one particular insect that they will be the only plant on which that insect ever feeds. Charles Darwin believed that living things produced by cross-fertilization always prevail over self-pollinated ones in the contest for existence because their offspring have new genetic mixtures and will then have the evolutionary chance to adapt as the world around them changes. Most orchids never pollinate themselves, even when a plant's pollen is applied artificially to its fertile stigma. Some orchid species are actually poisoned to death if their pollen touches their stigma. There are other plants that don't pollinate themselves either, but no flower is more guarded against self-pollination than orchids.

The orchid family could have died out like dinosaurs if insects had chosen to feed on simpler plants and not on orchids. The orchids wouldn't have been pollinated, and without pollination they would never have grown seeds, while self-pollinating simple plants growing nearby would have seeded themselves constantly and spread like mad and taken up more and more space and light and water, and eventually orchids would have been pushed to the margins of evolution and disappeared. Instead, orchids have multiplied and diversified and become the biggest flowering-plant family on earth, because each orchid species has made itself irresistible. Many species took so much like their favorite insects that the insect mistakes them for kin, and when it lands on the flower to visit, pollen sticks to its body. When the insect repeats the mistake on another orchid, the pollen from the first flower gets deposited on the stigma of the second — in other words, the orchid gets fertilized because it is smarter than the bug. Another orchid species imitates the shape of something that a pollinating insect likes to kill. Botanists call this pseudo-antagonism. The insect sees its enemy and attacks it — that is, it attacks the orchid — and in the process of this pointless fight the insect gets dusted with orchid pollen and spreads the pollen when it repeats the mistake. Other species look like the mate of their pollinator, so the bug tries to mate with one orchid and then another — pseudo-copulation — and spreads pollen from flower to flower each hopeless time. Lady's-slipper orchids have a special hinged lip that traps bees and forces them to pass through sticky threads of pollen as they struggle to escape through the back of the plant. Another orchid secretes nectar that attracts small insects. As the insects lick the nectar they are slowly lured into a narrowed tube inside the orchid, until their heads are directly beneath the crest of the flower's rostellum. When the insects raise their heads the crest shoots out little darts of pollen that are instantly and firmly cemented to the insects' eyeballs but then fall off the moment the insects put their heads inside another orchid plant. Some orchids have straight-ahead good looks but deceptive and seductive odors. There are orchids that smell like rotting meat, which insects happen to like. Another orchid smells like chocolate. Another smells like an angel-food cake. Several mimic the scent of other flowers that are more popular with insects than they are. Some release perfume only at night, to attract nocturnal moths.

No one knows whether orchids evolved to complement insects or whether the orchids evolved first, or whether somehow these two life forms evolved simultaneously, which might explain how two totally different living things came to depend on each other. The harmony between an orchid and its pollinator is so perfect that it is kind of eerie. Darwin loved studying orchids. In his writings he often described them as "my beloved Orchids," and was so certain that they were the pinnacle of evolutionary transformation that he once wrote that it would be "incredibly monstrous to look at an Orchid as having been created as we now see it." In 1877, he published a book called The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects. In one chapter he described a strange orchid he had found in Madagascar — an Angraecum sesquipedale, with waxy white star-shaped flowers and "a green whip-like nectary of astonishing length." The nectary was almost twelve inches long, and all of the nectar was in the bottom inch. Darwin hypothesized that there had to be an insect that could eat the unreachable nectar and at the same time fertilize the plant — otherwise the species couldn't exist. Such an insect would have to have a complementarily strange shape. He wrote: "In Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and twelve inches! This belief of mine has been ridiculed by some entomologists, but we now know from Fritz Muller that there is a sphinx-moth in South Brazil which has a proboscis of nearly sufficient length, for when dried it was between ten and eleven inches long. When not protruded the proboscis is coiled up into a spiral of at least twenty windings . . . . Some huge moth with a wonderfully long proboscis could drain the last drop of nectar. If such great moths were to become extinct in Madagascar, assuredly the Angraecum would become extinct." Darwin was very interested in how orchids released pollen. He experimented by poking them with needles, camel-hair brushes, bristles, pencils, and fingers. He discovered that parts were so sensitive that they released pollen upon the slightest touch, but that "moderate degrees of violence" on the less sensitive parts had no effect, which he concluded meant that the orchid wouldn't release pollen haphazardly — it was smart enough to save it for only the most favorable encounters with bugs. He wrote: "Orchids appeared to have been modelled in the wildest caprice, but this is no doubt due to our ignorance of their requirements and conditions of life. Why do Orchids have so many perfect contrivances for their fertilisation? I am sure that many other plants offer analogous adaptations of high perfection; but it seems that they are really more numerous and perfect with the Orchideae than with most other plants."

The schemes orchids use to attract a pollinator are elegant but low-percentage. Botanists recently studied one thousand wild orchids for fifteen years, and during that time only twenty-three plants were pollinated. The odds are bad, but orchids compensate. If they are ever fertilized, they will grow a seedpod that is supercharged. Most other species of flowers produce only twenty or so seeds at a time, whereas orchid pods may be filled with millions and millions of tiny, dust-sized seeds. One pod has enough seeds to supply the world's prom corsages for the rest of eternity.

Some species of orchids grow in the ground, and others don't live in soil at all. The ones that don't grow in soil are called epiphytes, and they live their lives attached to a tree branch or a rock. Epiphytic orchid seeds settle in a comfortable spot, sprout, grow, dangle their roots in the air, and live a lazy life absorbing rainwater and decayed leaves and light. They aren't parasites — they give nothing to the tree and get nothing from it except a good place to sit. Most epiphytes evolved in tropical jungles, where there are so many living things competing for room on the jungle floor that most species lose the fight and die out. Orchids thrived in the jungle because they developed the ability to live on air rather than soil and positioned themselves where they were sure to get light and water — high above the rest of the plants on the branches of trees. They thrived because they took themselves out of competition. If all of this makes orchids seem smart — well, they do seem smart. There is something clever and unplantlike about their determination to survive and their knack for useful deception and their genius for seducing human beings for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Orchids grow slowly. They languish. They will produce a flower and a seedpod, maybe, and then rest for months at a time. A pollinated orchid seed will mature into a flowering plant in about seven years. Over time, an orchid will wither away in back but it will keep growing from the front. It has no natural enemies except bad weather and the odd virus. Orchids are one of the few things in the world that can live forever. Cultivated orchids that aren't killed by their owners can outlive their owners and even generations of owners. Many people who collect orchids designate an orchid heir in their wills, because they know the plants will outlast them. Bob Fuchs of R.F. Orchids has some plants in his nursery that were discovered by his late grandfather in South America at the turn of the century. Thomas Fennell III, of Fennell Orchids, has plants that his grandfather collected when he was a young man orchid-hunting in Venezuela. Some orchids at the New York Botanical Garden have been living in greenhouses there since 1898.

Orchids first evolved in the tropics, but they now grow all over the world. Most of them spread from the tropics as seeds that were lifted and carried on air currents. A hurricane can carry billions of seeds thousands of miles. Orchid seeds blown from South America to Florida will drop in swimming pools and barbecue pits and on shuffleboard courts and gas stations, on roofs of office buildings and on the driveways of fast-food restaurants, and in hot sand on a beach and in your hair on a windy day, and those will be swept away or stepped on or drowned without being felt or seen. But a few might drop somewhere tranquil and wet and warm, and some of those seeds might happen to lodge in a comfortable tree crotch or in a crack on a stone. If one of those seeds encounters a fungus that it can use for food, it will germinate and grow. Each time a hurricane hits Florida, botanists wonder what new orchids might have come in with it. At the moment, they are waiting to see what was blown in by Hurricane Andrew. They will know the answer around the seventh anniversary of the storm, when the seeds that landed will have sprouted and grown.

Nothing in science can account for the way people feel about orchids. Orchids seem to drive people crazy. Those who love them love them madly. Orchids arouse passion more than romance. They are the sexiest flowers on earth. The name "orchid" derives from the Latin orchis, which means "testicle." This refers not only to the testicle-shaped tubers of the plant but to the fact that it was long believed that orchids sprang from the spilled semen of mating animals. The British Herbal Guide of 1653 advised that orchids be used with discretion. "They are hot and moist in operation, under the dominion of Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly." In Victorian England the orchid hobby grew so consuming that it was sometimes called "orchidelirium"; under its influence many seemingly normal people, once smitten with orchids, became less like normal people and more like passionate orchid collector and breeder John Laroche. Even now there is something delirious in orchid-collecting. Every orchid-lover I met told me the same story — how one plant in the kitchen had led to a dozen, and then to a backyard greenhouse, and then, in some cases, to multiple greenhouses and collecting trips to Asia and Africa and an ever-expanding orchid budget and a desire for oddities so stingy in their rewards that only a serious collector could appreciate them — orchids like the Stanhopea, which blooms only once a year for at most one day. "The bug hits you," a collector from Guatemala explained to me. "You can join A.A. to quit drinking, but once you get into orchids you can't do anything to kick the habit." I didn't own any orchids before I went down to Florida, but Laroche always teased me and said that I'd never get through a year around orchid people without getting hooked. I didn't want to get hooked — I didn't have the room or the patience to keep plants in my apartment, and I suppose I also didn't want Laroche to feel too smug about his predictive power. In fact, nearly every orchid-grower I talked to insisted on giving me a plant, and I was so leery of getting attached that I immediately gave them all away.

Currently, the international trade in orchids is more than ten billion dollars a year, and some individual rare plants have sold for more than twenty-five thousand dollars. Thailand is the world's largest exporter of cut orchids, sending thirty million dollars' worth of corsages around the world. Orchids can be expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. There are orchid baby-sitters and orchid doctors and orchid boardinghouses — nurseries that will kennel your plants when they're not in bloom and then notify you when they've developed a bud and are ready to take home to show off. One magazine recently reported that a customer of one orchid kennel in San Francisco had so many plants that he was paying two thousand dollars in monthly rent. There are dozens of orchid sites on the Internet. For a while I checked in on "Dr. Tanaka's Home-page"; Dr. Tanaka described himself as "a comrade who love Paph!" and also as "so bad-looking, I can not show you my photo." Instead, his homepage had stories about new "splendid and/or marvelous Paphiopedilums in the Recent Orchid Show in JAPAN" and photographs of his greenhouse and his family, including one of his daughter, Paphiopedilum. "Junior high school, 1st year," he wrote under the picture of a smiling Miss Paphiopedilum Tanaka. "She is at a cheeky age. But I put her name to almost all selected clones of Paphs. First of all, I put 'Maki' and the next, 'Dreamy Maki,' 'Maki's Happiness, etc." As for his wife, Kayoko, Dr. Tanaka wrote, "Her age is secret. She is worried about developing a middle aged spread as me. She never complain of my growing orchids, Paphiopedilums, and let me do as I like . . . . Before we have a daughter, I have put my wife's name to the all of selected clones of my Paphs. But after that, I have forgotten her name entirely."

from The Orchid Thief. Copyright © 1998 by Susan Orlean. Reprinted with permission of Random House, Inc.

What People are Saying About This

Susan Tweit

Rooted in place, lacking a decipherable language, encased in shapes unlike our own, plants seem so foreign that we often forget the tie that binds us. The voices gathered in The Sweet Breathing of Plants not only remind us of it, but bring the wisdom and mystery of other lives into our own.
—(Susan Tweit, author of Seasons on the Pacific Coast and City Foxes.)

Jane Brox

The Sweet Breathing of Plants is a fine celebration of both women's writing and the natural world. From the fragrant, delicate orchid to the tough and stubborn tumbleweed, here is vegetal life in all its rich and nourishing variousness: its politics and passions, its science, history, and mythologies, and the mint-steeped essence of its nostalgias.
—(Jane Brox, author of Five Thousand Days Like This One)


Exclusive Author Essay
In 1994, when we were traveling in the lush Florida Everglades -- Linda Hogan was researching the Florida panther for the novel Power, and Brenda Peterson was studying bottlenose dolphins for the memoir Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals -- we had a traveling conversation on how women see the natural world differently. Whether it was Jane Goodall redefining what it is to be human in her groundbreaking research on the Gombe chimpanzees or Barbara McClintock "listening to the organism" in her Nobel Prize-winning genetic study of corn, women brought to their research of flora and fauna, their observation of nature, and their everyday life a feminine knowledge and authority.

Indigenous peoples still keep the wisdom of plants and animals; but throughout Old Europe, women herbalists and midwives were once all but erased. As editors, it was our shared dream, born in one of the most diverse, mysterious, and generous ecosystems on earth, the Florida Everglades, to gather together women's wisdom on the natural world.

The first volume in what is to be a trilogy of anthologies was Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals in which we brought together over 80 scientists, researchers, and writers to celebrate the lives of other animals. Ranging from Jane Goodall and elephant researcher Katy Payne to native writers such as Leslie Silko and Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu, Intimate Nature is still a bestselling anthology and is now taught in many colleges and universities. Reviewers welcomed the anthology as a balancing act -- not competitive with masculine knowledge of nature, but a restoration.

This second volume of the Women in the Natural World series is The Sweet Breathing of Plants. Here we celebrate the diverse bouquet of women's voices and visions on the complex green world that nurtures, heals, and inspires us. Again, in choosing the contributors, we cherish the native science of women who have always kept plant wisdom as part of their tribal lives: Paula Gunn Allen on trees; Anita Endrezze on the mother of all plants, maize (corn); and Linda Yamane on basket weaving.

We also included the pleasure and passion of plantswomen, with Susan Orlean on the fervent devotion to orchids, Sharman Apt Russell on the fine art of perfume, and Zora Neale Hurston on herbal tonics that include those for a wedding day. Here are scientists, a veterinarian, poets, butterfly experts, biologists, and biochemists, studying and praising every plant from weeds to marsh grasses to petunias.

In this anthology we wanted most to make a diverse bouquet -- not the usual plants like the carnations or roses of an FTD delivery. We searched for several years to come up with an unexpected array of plantswomen, whose voices still blend in a colorful and, we hope, remarkable presentation. From the sparse ikebana-like poem of "Bamboo" to the elegy for old-growth tree elders, from the troubling radioactive tumbleweeds traveling around a nuclear weapons plant to the celebration of a Mexican curandera using herbs to heal, The Sweet Breathing of Plants is a long-nurtured harvest of women's green wisdom.

And what would the next natural anthology be? We anticipate Face to Face: Women and God -- the final in the trilogy -- for 2002. (Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson)

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