At first blush, the subtitle of intrepid traveler Eric Hansen's floral account might seem, well, hyperbolic. After taking this whirlwind tour of the hidden world of rare orchid collectors, the reader will find the words well chosen. Hansen invites us into a strange demimonde of intrigue and desire, at the center of which is the orchid, that shadowy and somewhat sinister parasitic oddball of the plant kingdom. Orchid raising and trading is big business. Worldwide, the retail economy in orchids adds up to some $9 billion; in the United States, wholesalers ship nearly 8.5 million plants a year, while in Holland a single nursery produces 18 million. "Several million people worldwide now grow orchids," the author notes, "and this botanical craze has already eclipsed both the nineteenth-century frenzy for orchids as well as the tulip madness that gripped the Netherlands in the seventeenth century."
With such willing customers, it's no wonder that a thriving black market now exists. To serve it, orchids are taken illegally from sensitive ecological areas in places like Thailand, Borneo, and darkest Minnesota. In scenes reminiscent of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Hansen follows the trail of orchid smugglers, pursuing money and plants in a whodunit tale that involves botanical gardens, scholars, scientists, ordinary enthusiasts, and "plant cops"--international eco-police whose job it is to stop the traffic in rare and often endangered plants. Those vigilantes have their work cut out for them, Hansen writes, especially because some of the current laws may be misguided, causing more harm than good and equating honest breeders with botanical desperadoes. The laws are bound to fail in any event, he suggests, if only because the plant trade, like that of the drug trade, is simply too big to curtail.
Orchid enthusiasts and admirers of good journalism alike will find plenty of interest in Hansen's vivid, richly anecdotal investigation. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
In the same vein as Susan Orlean's Orchid Thief, this captivating tale is not so much about flowers as it is about obsession. In various chapters (some of which have appeared in Natural History magazine), Hansen (Stranger in the Forest; Motoring with Mohammed) examines different facets of the mysterious world of orchids, a universe of incredible subterfuge, erotic plant names and some very eccentric characters. He visits Borneo with two orchid growers and two Penan guides who are extremely puzzled about such enthusiasm over a flower that serves no medicinal or nutritive purpose. Hansen also interviews 84-year-old Eleanor Kerrigan, who in her Seattle basement greenhouse cultivates an illicit orchid collection worth $70,000. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has a strict policy about certain types of orchids, and many orchid growers and collectors, it turns out, operate on the wrong side of that policy, resulting in an underworld that, as the author notes, resembles the illegal drug trade. Hansen manages to talk to the secretive Henry Azadehdel (a cause c?l?bre in the orchid world since he was arrested for orchid smuggling in 1987) and travels to Turkey to taste orchid ice cream, which is rumored to be an aphrodisiac. Eventually, he comes to the conclusion that after five years of research he has become as obsessed with his subjects as they are with their flowers ("Orchids were doing strange things to me"). The results are fully enjoyable. (Mar.)
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