On a day when the news is filled with stories about a hate crime in Kansas, an assassination by nerve gas in Malaysia, and the exclusion of our most reliable news sources from a presidential briefing, it is a relief to turn to the wonders of the natural world. Along with scores of other people I visited the Pacific Orchid Exhibition in San Francisco and was refreshed by the silent, wondrous beauty of flowers.
Orchids, of course, are more than flowers. They are symbols of luxury, wealth and ambition. Perhaps because Westerners had to search so hard for them during the 19th century when they were first discovered, they have been associated with kings, queens, rich men and beautiful women. Queen Victoria had her own personal orchid hunter who scoured jungles throughout the world to find plants for the royal conservatory.
Wealth and orchids often went together in early films such as Carole Lombard’s hit No More Orchids in 1932. The perfect film title to link orchids and wealth was a 1927 silent film called Orchids and Ermine, which featured young attractive girls trying to find themselves rich husbands. The movie version of a sensational World War II book (said to be the most-read book among British troops during the war) No Orchids for Miss Blandish again offered orchids as a symbol of wealth and privilege.
Novels that feature orchids usually qualify as escapist fiction and the Nero Wolfe series of books by Rex Stout certainly fits that category. I depend on the Kindle downloads from the San Francisco Public Library for much of my reading and this weekend I was lucky enough to find the Nero Wolfe story Black Orchids. It’s delightful to travel back in imagination to the 1940s and visit an orchid show in New York where Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, go to an orchid show not unlike the one I visited. The flowers there were still as beautiful, the growers as dedicated, and the visitors just as enchanted as the ones I saw. The only thing not on display at the California show was a mysterious murder. Nero Wolfe’s love of orchids lives on and so do Stout’s books about him. They are well worth revisiting.
One of the things I like best about reading mysteries, and about writing them, is the intriguing subjects I learn about. In my recently published Charlotte Edgerton mystery, Death Calls at the Palace, Charlotte and her husband discover the excitement and anger of people involved in the Chartist movement in England during the early 19th century, just as I learned about them in researching the book. Deep divisions between the rich and poor, the demand for jobs that have disappeared, and the angry demonstrations that grow out of injustice echo some of the themes we see in our world today. And so do the strong convictions expressed in this “Chartist Anthem”.
The time shall come when wrong shall end,
When peasant to peer no more shall bend;
When the lordly Few shall lose their sway,
And the Man no more their frown obey.
Toil, brother, toil till the work is done,
Till the struggle is o’er and the Charter won.
What a wonderful way to spend a summer-like day in San Francisco—looking at hundreds of orchids in bloom! There are few flowers that have the complicated appeal of tropical orchids. Some of us can remember the times, years ago, when girls going to their high school proms wore a wrist corsage of a purple orchid as the finishing touch to their dresses. But those days are gone and orchids today are of more interest to gardeners than to the average teenager.
The theme of the 2016 Pacific Orchid show is “The Legacy of Orchids” celebrating the dramatic effect orchids have had on society. During the 1800s, dozens of daring orchid hunters scoured the jungles of South America and Southeast Asia to find exotic orchids for Europeans and Americans to grow at home. The orchids sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars and the hunts were cut-throat battles. Some orchid hunters destroyed or burned thousands of plants in the jungles so their rivals could not find the treasures they had discovered. Scarcity kept up the price for European orchid collectors.
Charles Darwin wrote about orchids and used their variations to demonstrate the evolution of species over time. One particular species, Angraecum sesquipedale, from Madagascar is called “Darwin’s Orchid” because Darwin announced, after studying the plant, that a specific moth must exist with an unprecedented 13 inch long proboscis in order to pollinate it. Twenty-one years after Darwin’s death other botanists found the moth, Xanthopan morganii praedicta, which has exactly the kind of proboscis Darwin had predicted.
Scientists are still studying orchids and learning more about the more than 27,000 species that exist. For the rest of us the most important thing we can do is to support the U.S. Endangered Species Act and international treaties which protect rare orchids. With deforestation continuing in many countries, there is continual pressure on many orchid species and fears that some of them may disappear.
This is the season for orchid shows across the country, so take advantage of the spring to view some of the loveliest flowers that can be found anywhere in the world.