"There is something distinctive about the sight and sound of a human body falling from the rain forest canopy."
After reading this first sentence of Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love. Lust, and Lunacy, you get the feeling that this book isn’t just a “how-to” instruction manual on orchid identification and care. Orchid Fever does go over how growers look after their prized possessions but Hansen is much more interested on how orchids affect collectors, growers, judges, “smugglers”, and seemingly normal people in bizarre, humourous, and, at times, tragic ways. In other words, how “orchid people” inevitably get the fever.
Orchid Fever ‘s chapters are small vignettes starring a particular orchid and various supporting characters, locales and events showing the “ill” effects this orchid has on people, Hansen included. In the chapter “The Orchid Judges”, Hansen describes the haughtiness and pettiness shown by “expert” orchid judges during a flower competition and compares such boorish behavior with the understated and modest love demonstrated by a father-daughter orchid grower team. It seems that he, himself, is not immune to the seductive nature of orchids and their growers:
"It wasn’t long before I noticed a young Chinese woman [named Teresa] with long black hair strolling down the main aisle of the exhibition. She was tall and slender; with fine features. Watching her pause to examine the plants in other booths, I got the sense that this was someone who had spent a lot of time with orchids. Teresa showed me one of her favorite orchids: Cymbidium sinense variety Faichow Dark. The plant blooms in February near the Chinese New Year, and it is often associated with that holiday. The small, dark purple flowers were intensely fragrant, giving off a warm, sweet, feminine scent that lured me back to the flowers several times. 'A naughty flower, no?' Teresa said, smiling. 'Like a perfumed dream,’ I replied. Teresa had the sort of dark, bottomless black eyes that you can fall into if you are not careful." (p. 121)
In another chapter titled” The Fox Testicle Ice Cream of Kemal Kucukonderuzunkoluk [sic]” describes the author’s visit to a Turkish ice cream maker to sample a frozen delicacy called salep made from ground “Fox Testicle” orchids (Orchis provincialis). According to Hansen, salep is a delicious concoction made from the orchid “flour”, sugar and milk, whipped together using metal rods in the Turkish tradition. The dessert, usually eaten with a knife and fork, is chewy and apparently is an aphrodisiac and has many other numerous health-enhancing properties. Bringing home some flour created this awkward and potentially tragic moment:
"From Maras I flew back to Istanbul and then to New York, where I stood in line to clear U.S. customs. Suddenly I remembered the clear plastic bag of white salep powder I had bought in Maras. Just as I realized that it looked exactly like a one-kilogram bag of heroin, I was motioned to the inspection counter. The officer rummaged through my suitcase and lifted out the bags of white powder. ‘Well, what do we have here?’ he asked. ‘Dried orchid tuber powder for making fox testicle ice cream,’I explained.‘Fox…testicle...ice cream?’ ‘A Turkish delicacy.’ The officer digested this info for a few minutes. He looked at me, looked at the bag, and then with a barely audible grunt of disgust, he tossed the packet of white powder into the suitcase and waved me through.” (pp. 98-9)
I had feverish thoughts throughout in this book. Hansen shows us glimpses of utter jaw-dropping beauty, vindictive politics and other shabby human behaviour, phantasms labeled as “orchid smugglers” and “orchid savers” popping in and out. The themes of seduction, lust and subliminal sexuality also run rampantly through Orchid Fever which is not surprising since members of the Cypripedium, Paphiopedilum, Bulbophyllum, Dendrobium, Cattleya (just to name a few) groups of orchids have evolved large and fragrant flowers (which are essentially sex organs) to attract pollinators. (How can anyone not see human genitalia in many orchids? Many are named in dry botanical Latin for this reason, e.g. Cattleya labiata). Ironically, the pollinators that have had the greatest impact on orchids through habitat destruction and test tube propagation are humans.
Have orchids evolved over millenia to attract us to do the work bees and spiders normally do in the wild? The attraction is strong and it's there. Through his entertaining travels, Hansen tells us the stories of individuals who, from an outsider’s perspective, have lost their minds by growing, collecting, protecting and loving orchids in their own peculiar ways. We’ve been warned of the passion and madness that these plants can cause.
Think about this the next time you see a gorgeous and beguiling Phalaenopsis orchid beckoning you from the garden centre shelf.