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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Orchid Fever

Air Date: Week of

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Host Steve Curwood talks with author Eric Hansen about his encounters with the floral-obsessed, and his new book, Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love Lust and Lunacy.


(Music up and under. "There's a world going on underground...")

CURWOOD: Sex. Intrigue. Big money. These are the ingredients of one of the most passionate tales of our times, the story of the orchid lovers. Now, if you don't know orchids, you could think I'm overstating the case. In fact, I used to think an orchid was just a flower with some showy petals. But that all ended when I read the book by journalist Eric Hansen called "Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy." Eric Hansen joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth.

HANSEN: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: So, Eric Hansen, where does the lunacy come into the world of orchids?

HANSEN: Orchids attract people for a lot of different reasons. A lot of people are just in it for the money. You look in fashion magazines these days and nearly in every interior spread, you will see an orchid. And there's just this allure of exoticism. Here's a tropical plant. I mean, look at this. You know, the plants themselves are quite ugly, but they produce these astonishingly beautiful flowers. And then you've got, really, the true orchid lovers. What they want to do, is they want to get a plant and learn everything about it. It's like you've got a new friend and you want to know what will make them laugh, what will make them cry. You want to know everything about this person. And to learn how to grow an orchid well, you have to sometimes uncover some really obscure botanical secrets. And the more people spend time with orchids, they want to get a more difficult plant to grow and to flower. And I think that's what really is the main hook for orchid growers.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what are some of the symptoms of this obsession?

HANSEN: The most obvious symptom of this obsession is usually a kitchen table or perhaps a window sill in somebody's house absolutely crammed with orchids. And people will start off with one orchid, maybe, that they buy at a, oh, a flea market, or somebody gives them an orchid. And they get a white one, and then they want a pink one, and then maybe they want a yellow one with red spots. And it's sort of collector's mania. But there's something about orchids; the way they enchant people is very similar to the way they seduce their pollinating insects. And I'm not sure whether it's the color or the shape of the plant or the fragrance that is emitted by some of these flowers. But it's pretty hard to get off orchids. I've seen people whose businesses have failed, whose marriages have ended in divorce, because they are spending all of their time either with orchid people or tending to their plants.

CURWOOD: Ah-hah. There's a point in your book where you sit in on a slide show at an international orchid festival. And I'm wondering if you could read a little from what you observed.

HANSEN: Sure. (Reads) When the lights had dimmed in the conference room, and the first few slides had been projected, I became aware of movement in the audience. All around me people were shifting discretely in their chairs, and I could sense a change in mood. The sounds of floral adoration continued to build in intensity, and as the slide show progressed the room grew warmer. And I thought I could detect the sound of heavy breathing nearby. By this time the flowers have worked their magic. And the audience started making the sorts of stifled moans and grunts that are more frequently associated with the midday crowd at an adult movie house. "Mmm. Luscious," somebody gasped nearby. One slide showed a large, varicolored paphyapavlum modeii-type [phonetic spelling] hybrid. "Wow, Big Red!" came a response from the darkness. "I'm in love!" cried out a woman. "I'll take it!" declared an elderly male voice from somewhere in the back. This celebration of the flowers went on for nearly an hour and a half before the house lights came up, and I looked around at the dreamy, knowing expressions on the face of the orchid people.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) This is an amazing cast of characters in your book. I'm just wondering if you could tell me about the one orchid lover you think best embodies someone who's got a full-blown case of orchid fever.

HANSEN: Probably there's a man that lives in southern California. He's called the Wizard of Oz. And Oz stands for the orchid zone. And to look at him, he looks like a sort of tattooed, fist-fighting, beer-drinking, cigar-smoking biker. And he's got a bunch of Harley-Davidsons. And he is the premiere orchid hybridizer in the world. And I went down to visit him and his orchid nursery, which is 40,000 square feet of table space. And he looks like a thug, and then you see him start to manipulate his flowers and take pollen with a toothpick from one and place it on the stigma of another. I mean, the precision and the delicacy with which he handles his plants, he all of a sudden looks like he's some sort of surgeon.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, what kind of extremes have people gone to, to get their orchids?

HANSEN: Well, people have ruined their lives trying to get a hold of rare plant material. I know a man in northern California who had murdered his partner. They ran an orchid nursery. And I asked him, I said, "Well, you know, what led up to this?" And he said one night they were just discussing their breeding program, and one man wanted one color to be emphasized in their breeding. The other man wanted another color. And this ended up with one man pulling out a gun and the other man pulling out a length of water pipe, and they had this, you know, ferocious fight to the death. And so, these plants, they can drive people crazy.

CURWOOD: And in other parts of your book you write about people getting arrested in airports, raided in their homes, and of course getting killed over orchids, as you just mention now. What's going on here? Why is this happening?

HANSEN: Well, in the case of people having their nurseries raided, there are very stringent international regulations on the movement of rare plant material from one country to another. And in Germany, I interviewed a man who was working in his greenhouse one morning when the door flew open, and in rush attack dogs, people dressed with bulletproof vests carrying automatic weapons. And they were there to confiscate plants. And in his case, it was a botanist from Kew Gardens who had informed upon him with the cooperation of a fellow orchid grower, who wanted to make sure that this man did not enter his orchids in an upcoming orchid show because he was afraid that he would lose to this man. So we have this sort of joint German-British armed raid on an orchid house for sort of the flimsiest of reasons.

CURWOOD: You write in your book about the orchid police. Tell me about them. Who are they, and how did you first find out about them?

HANSEN: The orchid police, this is a very interesting concept, and I received an anonymous phone call from a lawyer in the Midwest. And he was cautioning me that the orchid police were investigating me. And I thought this is a huge joke. But the more I learned about how the plant world is regulated, especially the orchid world, I started getting very paranoid that, you know, my phone was tapped or people were watching me. And the orchid police basically are a self-appointed group of botanists, lawyers, bureaucrats, and informers. There is a huge network of people who are watching the movement of orchids around the world.

CURWOOD: You read your book, and you have to wonder if some Hollywood agent hasn't called to option it to do sort of a mix of obsession and intrigue.

HANSEN: Well, when I think of orchid fever, I think of it partially as being absurdist black humor. But then there's sort of this quest for the truth. It's, I guess, a horticultural expose is probably the best expression that I can use to sum up what the book is about.

CURWOOD: Do you have any orchids, yourself?

HANSEN: I actually have a couple of old cattaleya [phonetic spelling] hybrids that were given to me years ago. I completely forgot about them. And they're in a corner of the garden, and about a year ago I was looking across the garden and I saw this orange color. And I thought, some kid threw, you know, a piece of paper over the fence or something. And I went over and I looked, and lo and behold here is this orchid that had been abandoned for at least three years. And it had produced this flower. And it's funny, because I looked at the flower and sort of this feeling of pride that, you know, I'd actually managed to flower this plant, was a real thrill. And I thought, yeah, that's orchid fever talking.

CURWOOD: Eric Hansen is author of the book "Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy." Mr. Hansen, thanks for joining us today.

HANSEN: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.



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