The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle)

by Susan Orlean

Paperback, 2000




Ballantine Books (2000), Edition: 13th, 320 pages


Gardening. True Crime. Nonfiction. HTML: The Orchid Thief is the true story of John Laroche, an obsessed Florida plant dealer willing to go to any lengths to steal rare and protected wild orchids and clone them, all for a tidy profit. But the morality of Laroche's actions do not drive the narrative of Orlean's strange, compelling, and hilarious book. She is much more interested in the spectacle this unusual man creates through his actions, including one of the oddest legal controversies in recent memory, which brought together environmentalists, Native American activists, and devoted orchid collectors. She follows Laroche deep into Florida's swamps, tapping into not only the psyche of the deeply opinionated Laroche but also the wider subculture of orchid collectors, including aristocrats, fanatics, and smugglers whose obsession with plants is all-consuming. Orlean portrays the weirdness of it all in wonderful detail, but, ultimately, the book is primarily about passion itself and the amazing lengths to which people will go to gratify it..… (more)


½ (593 ratings; 3.7)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mamzel
At one time in my life I had the orchid bug. I belonged to the local orchid society and rescued sad immature plants from supermarkets to see what they might produce. I read, I studied, and I visited my plants daily to check on their condition. I so understand the characters in this book (though I
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never in my life stole a single plant).

I listened to the audio version read by Jennifer Jay Myers while painting my bathroom. Primarily the story is about a man obsessed with obtaining and propagating a rare orchid found in the Florida Everglades, but the reader learns about the history of manic collectors and hunters and how orchid nurseries grew in popularity in the U.S. One also learns a lot about the fascinating orchid: why the incredible range in colors and shapes, where they are found, and most of all, how people become passionate orchid growers.

Some of the information about hunters and collectors reminded me of a book I read about the Lord God Bird, one of many species of birds hunted to extinction or the brink thereof for their feathers used to ornament women's hats. This was another example of man's using nature for his own benefit without considering the impact on nature. Naturists will enjoy this book.
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LibraryThing member krau0098
I started reading about this book because I thought I was interested in learning about orchids and some of the culture around them. I found out that I am not *that* interested in orchids and Florida. I read the first 60 pages of this and it took me awhile to get through that. I kept finding other
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things (any other thing) to do rather than read this book. So, I ended up setting this aside.

The beginning of this book comes off as some strange ode to Florida; this really struck a false note with me because I went to Florida a lot as a kid (my grandparents lived there) and I do not like Florida...I will never like Florida.

After the diatribe about how awesome and unique Florida is the book goes into a ton of detail on orchids. This was kind of cool but it was just too much for me. The way Olean writes is almost overly descriptive; she has a habit of spending a long time describing things and making long lists of items which came off as a bit text-bookish and was just a huge info dump.

Overall this book just wasn’t my cup of tea. It was boring and a bit preachy about the wonders of Florida. I would recommend reading the first chapter of the book before buying and seeing how you like it; the first chapter is pretty representative of the book.
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LibraryThing member melydia
When my pharmacist caught sight of this book, he asked if it was a thriller. That is one thing this book is not. It is, however, a slew of other things. Though it began more or less as Orlean's interest in the trial of one John Laroche, a Florida man caught poaching ghost orchids off park land with
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a trio of Seminole Indians, it rapidly blossomed into a full-scale investigation of the orchid-loving life. Evidently people go mad for these plants, sort of a "gotta catch 'em all" attitude for the floraphile set. And considering there are tens of thousands of orchid breeds, many costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars and meticulous care, it can become quite the costly and timely pursuit. Sound boring? Surprisingly, it isn't. Perhaps the most fascinating part for me was not the unexpectedly vehement passions of orchid enthusiasts, but rather Orlean's bald-faced judgementalism. It said a lot about her attitudes, and rather than being an impartial observer, she was clearly flabbergasted by the entire orchid culture - indeed, about any passion of that magnitude for anything. Without that air of "OMG look how weird this is" permeating throughout the story, this would have been rather dull. I didn't know the orchid world was so cutthroat, but after you've spent time with sports fanatics and anime fanboys, you realize that there are many things in this world that interest people far more than they do you, and nothing is too unusual to obsess over.
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LibraryThing member murderbydeath
The first thing you need to know is that this is a book about Florida and orchidists. I am a (born and bred) Floridian raised in a family of orchidists.

I preface this review with these facts because there’s going to be a strongly sentimental bias to my feelings about this book. I can’t possibly
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be objective about either subject, because — let’s call it “Old Florida” even though I’m young enough to have missed out on the truly old Florida — is what my soul is made of. If it were a visible thing it would be full of scrub forest, swamp land and the Gulf of Mexico (and hush puppies and iced tea). And no way could I be objective about orchids; I literally grew up in greenhouses. My mother’s flower shop, which my father’s greenhouses and laboratory were attached to, was a road, a small-town library parking lot, and a dirt alley away from our home. I’m pretty sure were there a way to tally up time spent at home vs. the shop, the shop would actually win. And there are very few memories of my dad that pop into my head that don’t involve him watering his orchids, replanting his orchids, or bent over his sanitised glove box – a design of his own creation – or… the least pleasant from a sensory aspect: him cooking up his growing media, which often consisted of combinations of vegetable and fruit never, ever, designed to be together, like bananas and potatoes (omg, the smell). I have lost hours of my life to greenhouses sprinkled throughout Southwest Florida (and Illinois), and orchid shows, before I was old enough to be left to my own devices.

So believe me when I say that, other than my pedantic nitpicking over calling Florida’s ecosystem a jungle, Susan Orlean nailed both the state and the crazy orchid loving people in it. Including herself in the story creates a nice foil for the eccentric mix of people that make up the less civilised places of Florida (which is pretty much all the places). My sister would be a better judge of how close she came to the personalities of the players; I recognised the names but given my relationship with orchids (YOU MAY CALL ME DEATH), I was only ever a spectator, and a pretty disinterested as only a teenager can be, but Orlean captures the atmosphere, the close-knit community and the cattiness of the orchid world perfectly.

According to the publisher and book flap, this is a book about John Larouche (whom I’d never heard of until I read this), but really, it’s about all orchidists and their often unfathomable passion for a plant that is, objectively, ugly. Until it flowers, and then it’s spectacular. Specifically, this book is about the Ghost Orchid, a Florida native known only to live in a very few spots in the Fakahatchee Strand. A plant that consists of nothing but roots and a flower, no leaves. While Larouche is absent for much of the book, the Ghost Orchid is always present. This is a good thing because I doubt anybody could take an awful lot of a character like Larouche.

I could meander on in this review for quite some time, but I wouldn’t really be talking about the book, so I’ll just say: it was good; it was enjoyable and well written and enlightening. If eccentric characters a la Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil appeal to you along with the swampy, humid, atmosphere of Florida, you might find something to like in this read.

On a slightly related side note, my father passed away on this date in 2004, so the read felt especially timely for me. What made it even more poignant though, was what I found when doing a bit of googling about the Ghost Orchid; it seems Larouche was not entirely correct when he said nobody could breed the Ghost Orchid (breed, not clone, which is what Larouche was trying to do): it turns out my daddy could, and did. I found this except on an orchid site out of Delray Beach called HBI Orchids:

The Ghost Orchid, Polyrrhiza lindeni (old school name). We at HBI have been working on growing ghost orchids from seed for over 28 years ever since we first bought 3 ghost orchids flasks from Larry Evans. Larry did curating and flasking work for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. Selby once green housed the top premier specimens of this Florida species. The ghost orchid parents used by Larry originated in the Fakahatchee Strand and were first bred by him many years before ghost orchids were designated as an endangered species. Fakahatchee ghost orchids with their longer frog-legs/tendrils and ghostly all-white flower surpass the truncated short-tendril inferior class lindeni green-flower ghost orchid pretenders named Dendrophylax sallei from Cuba and Dominican Republic in any competition and will always be the more valuable type of this vanishing species to own.

I clearly remember my dad doing Selby’s lab/flask work; at that time they couldn’t do it themselves without contamination (orchid seed has to be handled in a completely sterile environment, sprinkled across growing medium in sealed, sterile flasks; otherwise just about any microbe floating in the air will overtake and kill the seedlings before they can start), so they’d asked him to do it in his lab. But I never knew they were ghost orchids or how special they are. So tip of the hat to Orlean for leading me back to my father in more ways than I bargained on.
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LibraryThing member yenzie
Very nice prose and a truckload of fascinating facts about orchids (and the crazy peoples who love them) and the state of Florida. Infortunately, the book kind of peter out instead of truly reaching a conclusion.
LibraryThing member jennyo
I've read Orlean's book The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, so I sort of knew what to expect from this one; clear, precise, often witty writing about fascinating people and things.

I never knew orchids were such a big deal. I learned so much when reading this book. Not enough to make me want to
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trudge through a swamp, but enough to make me want to Google some orchid images for a few hours. I really like books about obsessions. Like mlbish, I was a big fan of Word Freak (Stefan Fatsis). Another book along those same lines is Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. It's fascinating to me that people can build their lives around something I find rather mundane.
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LibraryThing member Linkmeister
I read this on the recommendation of several someones in the Nero Wolfe book group, and I'm glad I did.

It's a fascinating study (expanded, I think, from an earlier New Yorker article) of the subculture of orchid fanciers in Florida, focusing on one man in particular (the Thief in the title).

If you
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like books about obsessions, this one's for you. It's got crime, courts, swamps, vivid descriptions of plants, a brief history of how the orchid took the fancy of Victorians and grew from there, and more.
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LibraryThing member TanyaTomato
I would have thrown this book down in boredom if my friend hadn't kept telling me that it gets better, and that it has a lot of twists. Oh wait - she saw the movie that was completley different.
LibraryThing member enfjfox
Susan Orlean comes off as a pretentious author. The Orchid Thief’s prologue is a (literal) interview with herself about the film, Adaptation. She tries to be funny, but frankly she is not. In a later interview, assuming not just with herself, the interviewer inquires about Orlean constantly
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portraying herself as the subject in her books. She admits to this and states “well, I am in my stories.” She has written another novel about her world travels called My Kind of Place. Maybe her novels simply do not tailor to my liking, but I do not think I am the type of person who lives vicariously by reading a novel that is actually an ego-booster for a novelist who loves writing about herself. Then again, I am just assuming, and I have not even read the book yet. Nor do I plan to.

My apologies; I am here to review books, not authors.

My boyfriend and I were wandering through Borders when he recommended The Orchid Thief because I am an orchid lover. It is about a man named John Laroche who tries to poach the rare and endangered Ghost Orchid from the Fakahatchee swamp in Florida to clone in a Seminole nursery. The novel also includes stories and histories of orchid hunters, collectors, and major orchid companies. Orlean does a good job making these facts interesting, especially since her writing is vivid in its descriptions of both settings and characters, and her voice is consistent and usually witty. However, her writing is not exactly captivating, but has more of a fairy-tale reporter quality. She also has a habit of repeating character descriptions. For example, she points out how breeders have different ideas on breeding orchids: either mutating the orchids to look more intriguing or breeding them to closer resemble their ancestors. She mentions this observation two or three times, somewhat reminiscent of an old man who constantly repeats the same story to the same person.

If there is one word to describe the book, it is “interesting.” Orlean makes the stories interesting, but that is all the book has going for it- definitely not a page turner. In the Orchid Thief, the author concludes that hardcore hobbyists immerse themselves in their interests to give order to a cluttered and constantly changing universe. Like certain phenotypes, however, Orlean’s theme is not very pronounced throughout the novel. Though the subjects are interesting, the novel itself is extremely overrated and is not anything special.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I never expected to like this book, let alone love it as much as I did. Orlean's story, which forms the basis of the Nicholas Cage film "Adaptation," is a celebration of beauty as much as it is a search for it; Orlean finds the most fascinating character, and follows him in his dark search for the
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most beautiful orchid.
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LibraryThing member bookheaven
Very interesting peek into the world of people obsessed with orchids.
LibraryThing member marysargent
A wonderful, wonderful book. "A True Story of Beauty and Obsession" Such a good writer and about a subject I'm fascinated by: obsession. Very good at evoking a place: Florida. The swamps. Nicely structured.
LibraryThing member izze.t
This book was orginially a piece for The New Yorker. You can tell the author had trouble stretching the material. Lots o fluff and inconsiquencial details. It felt poorly written and lost my interest, regardless of the topic.
LibraryThing member JBD1
The inspiration for "Adaptation," Orlean's book grew out of a 'New Yorker' article on the theft of various rare orchids in Florida by the too-strange-to-be-fictional John Laroche. It is a fabulous study of orchid culture and "orchid people," and a richly detailed fun read.
LibraryThing member tamara.townsend
This is one of my favorite books ever. I read this book when I had just moved to Florida and found the observations of Orlean extremely insightful of this strange state. I enjoyed the adventures of the real life historic Orchid hunters, and the flurry of popularity and danger a simple flower could
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insight. But orchids are not simple flowers, nor are those who covet them. The biggest reason I liked this book is that it was created over a single, small newspaper article Susan Orlean happened to come across and decide to investigate.
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LibraryThing member jaybee2008
quite possibly the most boring book i've ever read.
LibraryThing member debnance
This writer could make a cracked sidewalk an interesting subject. I know almost nothing about plants, but I quickly became drawn into this story of the people who are deeply passionate about orchids. Recommended.
LibraryThing member melissavenable
This was an unexpected find - set in South Florida with lots of history about the area, the Seminole Tribe, and how this part of the State came to be populated. Also a thorough lesson on orchids - cultivation, varieties. The author reports on her time in Florida spent with avid collectors (one in
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particular started the whole thing by making the news trying to take orchids out of a protected area), experiencing their own particular culture, and searching for the elusive Ghost Orchid.
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LibraryThing member mojomomma
In her quest to find out more about orchids, author Orleans finds the characters and personalities that keep the floral economy spinning. She becomes a bit smitten herself in her quest to find a blooming "ghost orchid" in a Florida swamp. Lots of history about the growth of orchids worldwide and
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how 19th and early 20th century Americans and Western Europeans pretty successfully raped the tropics of many species.
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LibraryThing member keywestnan
This is a great work of nonfiction -- though, even though I gave it four stars, I do think it worked better as a magazine story than as a full-length book. But the four stars recognize 1) Orlean's excellent reporting and writing skills in teasing out both the historical weirdnesses of orchid mania
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and the contemporary weirdnesses of orchid collectors and 2) her truly excellent capture of South Florida weirdness, something that is often done cartoonishly (Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen) but rarely straight-up.
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LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
This is a great story of survival. So many of the characters are fighting for their survival; be it from domestic violence, mental illness or personal demons. The characters come to life off the pages, some to love, some to hate, it is a great mix of both. I did think the story to be a bit wordy at
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times, it seemed some of the narrative could have been cut out without hurting the story. This would be a very interesting title for a book club as there are many topics to discuss.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
I found this book to be overrated and disappointing. As another reviewer pointed out, it was more like a very long magazine article than a book. Orlean threw in a lot of information about orchids, orchid hunters, orchid obsessives etc., but to me it didn't add up to a coherent whole. The paragraphs
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were way too long and run-on as well.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
Why did I think this was a book of fiction? It must have been the title, and the fact that it was made into a movie (and, I understand, a movie about the movie). I'm imagining what the movie makers left in, what tehy took out, and what they added added to sustain it.

So it's not a book of fiction.
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It's more like a John McPhee book, chock full of people, science, history, and happenstance. Susan Orlean gets hooked on an orchid thief - journalisticly speaking - and investigates the man and the world of orchids in Florida (mainly) and the mania for them worldwide. Aside from the original manic enthusiast, she introduces other orchid growers and breeders, history of orchid hunters and their patrons, and the murky overlap of the law as it relates to people in general versus Seminoles in particular.

This was originally an article in the New Yorker (McPhee again), and it shows, as she pads the book with side trips into history, jungles, flower shows, mud, alligators and, above all, the orchids themselves. For a book all about them, filled with detailed descriptions of them, not to have pictures of them is a staggering tease. And she repeats herself one too many times in very specific ways (didn't she already talk about why that guy hated the other guy?), which makes it feel a bit pasted together.

So why did I finish the book? I was looking for the punchline, the button on the story about the orchid thief himself. And she does provide same - it's just not the payoff I had hoped for.
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LibraryThing member Sandydog1
A good book, too bad a movie was made with the same name.
LibraryThing member andreablythe
The Orchid Thief is kind of a strange book. On the one hand, it's about John Laroche, a plant dealer and outcast, who was arrested in 1994 with a group three Seminole Indians for stealing rare orchids from a southern Florida swamp. This is where Susan Orlean began with the story after seeing a tiny
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blurb in a small, local newspaper. The book grows far beyond that source material, however, and sort of meanders through the orchid world, revealing the beauty of the plants and the obsession people have about collecting them.

But Laroche's is only one part of the story. Over the course of the book, Orlean looks at the biology of the orchids (noting that there are over 100,000 species), goes in the history of orchid hunting and the mania of collectors when the plants were first discovered, meets various collectors at functions and explores their history as collectors, points out orchid grower rivalries, shares the history of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve and describes it in lovingly detail, goes into the history of the Seminole Indians in the area and their local heroes, among other little tidbits of facts and history and science, all while weaving in her own experiences in Florida and her obsession with discovering why people are so obsessed with these flowers with Laroche cropping up every once in a while like an odd, lanky swamp bird. Thus, the book is an unusual mixture of crime story, character sketch, historical account, biology lesson, and travel memoir, one that is far from objective and deeply fascinating to read.

For those who may not be aware, The Orchid Thief is the basis for the 2002 movie Adaptation, staring Nicolas cage. And reading it now, I can certainly see why Charlie Kaufman had such trouble adapting the book into a movie. There is no way to do a straight adaptation, as the kind of meandering quality wouldn't work on the screen and the ending in the book (while a perfect declaration of the incomplete quality of everyday life just going on) wouldn't work for a movie format. In a sense, Kaufman's adaptation of the book is perfect, because just as Susan Orlean took a story meant to be about Laroche and his adventures and controversies and she interjected herself into the story, making it as much about her own experience as about Laroche, Kaufman took her book and made a movie script that was just as much about himself (or an idea of himself) as it was about the story — which is kind of a cool parallel.
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Physical description

8.2 inches


044900371X / 9780449003718
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