This past February I attended The Orchid Society’s 46th Annual Orchid Show at the Naples Botanical Garden and was as amazed at the array of prize winning orchids as I was the line of devotees waiting to get into this seductive mystical maze of blooms that so stirs the imagination that no qualities of character or intellect can protect against the plants’ strange allure.
Think I’m kidding?
As I exited, I picked up a punch-out of a Ghost Orchid, one of the rarest flowers in the world, and remembered the first and only time I saw one.
Have you heard of The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean? She tells the true story of John Laroche, a man who was so fueled by his passion for the beautiful plants — and for the elusive ghost orchid in particular — that he became an “orchidelirium,” a term coined in Victorian times for seemingly normal people who, once smitten with orchids, became less like normal people and more like, well, my swamp mates.
In 2010, I decided to find out about this ghost orchid and took my first swamp walk (san GPS) in the Fakahatchee Strand, the orchid and bromeliad capital of the continent. With water up to the tip of my nonexistent hip-waders, I trudged along for what seemed like hours and readily snapped to attention when my travel mates gleefully whispered, “Here it is!” “That’s it?”
I wondered out loud to my Fakahatchee sloggers who noted, in a joyful chorus, “Yes!” I did my best to widen my eyes to match my faux smile so as not to rain on the parade of all who were slapping air high fives.
On the way down for my excursion, the song in my mind was that snappy beat of ‘Ghostbusters’, “I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost”.
That tune quickly shifted to Peggy Lee’s mournful existentialist song from 1969,“Is That All There Is?”
Ms.. Lee’s lyrics lingered like the haze over the bogs and I began to wonder if I Googled the song, would a picture of a ghost orchid show up? Google didn’t give me that photo, but it did let me know that the lyrics for “Is That All There Is?” were inspired in 1896 by Thomas Mann who wrote a story called, “Disillusionment.”
We all know that feeling when something doesn’t live up to the expectations, and Mann’s solution was to “take out the booze and have a ball”, which I thought may be a bit of an overreaction in this case.
RIGHT IN OUR OWN BACKYARD
Ms. Orlean came to know Mr. Laroche — whom the Seminoles in the swamp referred to as “Crazy White Man” and “The Troublemaker”— in July 1994 at the Collier County Courthouse, after his arrest for illegally taking endangered wild orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park (a charge of which he was never found guilty).
Ms. Orlean’s interview with one of only six people in the entire country (at that time) who knew how to propagate the ghost orchid in a plant laboratory led to details of his plan to take and sell some of the wild orchids, cultivate the rest and in a few years have thousands to sell.
Ultimately, as Mr. Laroche saw it, he would saturate the black market and loosen its grip on these rare and delicate commodities. He researched the law and realized that it was vague about the Indians taking things out of state preserves.
This law ought to be changed, but in the meantime, someone was going to benefit, and he figured it might as well be him.
Mr. Laroche paid a fine, and his two Seminole accomplices (who were actually his employers) pleaded no contest and were released as the government wanted to end the trial sooner rather than later, as issues involving the Seminole Indians and the Everglades tended to be quite sensitive.
The worst penalty Mr. Laroche had to pay, however, was the probation that prohibited him from visiting his beloved Fakahatchee Strand for six months.
Ms. Orlean said that Mr. Laroche had both won and lost: He had found a loophole in the law, but lost the case; found the orchids, but lost the right to keep them; and found himself famous but slightly disgraced.
See, I wasn’t kidding. There was no disillusionment at the 46th Annual Orchid Show that left me yearning for more. Take your first step towards orchidelirium, visit naplesorchidsociety.org.