The Orchid Thief
In 1994, I headed down to Florida to investigate the story of John Laroche, an eccentric plant dealer who had been arrested along with a crew of Seminoles for poaching rare orchids out of the a South Florida swamp. I never imagined that I would end up spending the next two years shadowing Laroche and exploring the odd, passionate world of orchid fanatics. I certainly never imagined that I would willingly hike through the swamps of South Florida — but that’s what writing a book does to you. I found myself as passionate about the project as the orchid fanatics were about their flowers, and that is ultimately what the book is about. I’m proud to report that the book was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes and Noble Discover book, a Borders New Voices selection, an honoree in the American Library Association and New York Public Library books-of-the-year selections, and the subject of the movie, Adaptation.
About the book
“In Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing true story of beauty and obsession is John Laroche, a renegade plant dealer and sharply handsome guy, in spite of the fact that he is missing his front teeth and has the posture of al dente spaghetti. In 1994, Laroche and three Seminole Indians were arrested with rare orchids they had stolen from a wild swamp in south Florida that is filled with some of the world’s most extraordinary plants and trees. Laroche had planned to clone the orchids and then sell them for a small fortune to impassioned collectors. After he was caught in the act, Laroche set off one of the oddest legal controversies in recent memory, which brought together environmentalists, Native American activists, and devoted orchid collectors. The result is a tale that is strange, compelling, and hilarious.
“New Yorker writer Susan Orlean followed Laroche through swamps and into the eccentric world of Florida’s orchid collectors, a subculture of aristocrats, fanatics, and smugglers whose obsession with plants is all-consuming. Along the way, Orlean learned the history of orchid collecting, discovered an odd pattern of plant crimes in Florida, and spent time with Laroche’s partners, a tribe of Seminole Indians who are still at war with the United States.
“There is something fascinating or funny or truly bizarre on every page of The Orchid Thief: the story of how the head of a famous Seminole chief came to be displayed in the front window of a local pharmacy; or how seven hundred iguanas were smuggled into Florida; or the case of the only known extraterrestrial plant crime. Ultimately, however, Susan Orlean’s book is about passion itself, and the amazing lengths to which people will go to gratify it. That passion is captured with singular vision in The Orchid Thief, a once-in-a-lifetime story by one of our most original journalists.”
Here are some Orchid Thief book covers from around the world. See if you can guess where they’re from before clicking on them for the larger version.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times
“Artful…In Ms. Orlean’s skillful handling, her orchid story turns out to be distinctly ‘something more.’ Getting to know Mr. Laroche allows her to explore multiple subjects: orchids, Seminole history, the ecology of the Fakahatchee Strand, the fascination of Florida to con men….All that she writes here fits together because it is grounded in her personal experience…acres of opportunity where intriguing things can be found.”
Ted Conover, The New York Times Book Review
“The collecting mania that Susan Orlean has so painstakingly described is, like the orchid, a small thing of grandeur, a passion with a pedigree…Stylishly written, whimsical yet sophisticated, quirkily detailed and full of empathy for a person you might not have thorugh about empethetically…The Orchid Thief shows her gifts in full bloom.”
Alexandra Lange, New York Magazine
“Orlean’s hilariously reported, discursive narrative wanders off into Seminole history, real-estate fraud, stolen flora, and the scary, swampy Fakahatchee Strand. Just when you fear you’re lost in the Everglades, she returns to the flower at hand, and unleashes some delirious prose….Orlean shows great restraint and never adopts an orchid–readers may not manage to be so cold-blooded.”
Frances Taliaferro, The Wall Street Journal
“Readers suffering from the impeachment blues can start the new year right with The Orchid Thief, a swashbuckling piece of reporting that celebrates some virtues that made America great. Here are visionary passions and fierce obsessions; heroic settings; outsize characters, entrepreneurs on the edge of the frontier, adventurers seeking the bubble reputation….Ms. Orlean, an intrepid sociologist among the orchid fanatics, is also a poetic observer of the Fakahatchee swamp. There’s an offhand brilliance in her accounts of its weird beauty and discomforts. But the most compelling sections of this fascinating book deal with the orchids themselves….Zestful.”
Anita Manning, USA Today
“Orlean is a beautiful writer, and her story is compelling even for those whose knowledge of orchids is limited to the long-ago prom corsage. The Orchid Thief is a lesson in the dark, dangerous, sometimes hilarious nature of obsession–any obsession. You sometimes don’t want to read on, but find you can’t help it.”
“Orlean writes in a keenly observant mode reminiscent of John McPhee and Diane Ackerman….In prose as lush and full of surprises as the Fakahatchee itself, Orlean connects orchid-related excesses of the past with the exploits of the present so dramatically an orchid will never just be an orchid again.”
“If you liked MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, this new nonfiction work by Susan Orlean will hold you utterly spellbound. Like many orchids, it’s a beautiful hybrid: part crime story (about orchid poaching in the wild swamps of Florida), part exotic read (about a fanatic society of flower breeders). Led by the title character, a charismatic plant smuggler, you’ll journey with Orlean through a strangely fascinating, almost mystical subculture.”
Dean Crawford, The Boston Globe
“The landscapes of John Laroche and the state of Florida elicit some of Susan Orlean’s best writing….her ear for self-skewing dialogue, her eye for the incongruous, convincing detail, and her Didion-like deftness in description….Such rapturous evocations are reason enough to read Orlean’s book.”
Los Angeles Times
“Fascinating… tales of theft, hatred, greed, jealousy, madness, and backstabbing… an engrossing journey.”
Anna Mundow, The New York Daily News
“The best writers make you care about something you never noticed before. Susan Orlean is a perfect example…In a dry reporter’s style, spiked with wit and charged with infectious enthusiasm, Orlean explains orchid biology and traces the history of orchid hunting, scattering surprises as she goes….An endearingly timid explorer who shudders each time she lowers herself into the teeming ooze of the Fakahatchee, Orlean is also an acute observer of the personalities and rivalries she encounters…Orlean allows accidental discoveries and encounters to dicate the book’s peculiar, engrossing course.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Irresistible… a brilliantly reported account of an illicit scheme to housebreak Florida’s wild and endangered ghost orchid… Its central figure is John Laroche, the ‘oddball ultimate’ of a subculture whose members are so enthralled by orchids they ‘pursue them like lovers.'”
Detroit Free Press
“Deliciously weird… compelling.”
“Orlean’s buoyant, self-assured style makes the journey fun.”