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The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (1998)

by Susan Orlean

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2,764745,226 (3.69)123
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)
  1. 40
    The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett (sarah-e)
    sarah-e: A fascinating world with a similarly bizarre and superior main character.
  2. 10
    Fake: Forgery, Lies, & eBay by Kenneth Walton (stephmo)
    stephmo: Fake covers the world of art collecting in a similar way. There is a LaRoche-like individual present in that story as well.
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» See also 123 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
I read this first and then saw the movie. Liked the book a lot more. She captures the orchid thief's sense of passion and all the little side forays into history and nature are a delight ( )
  cspiwak | Mar 6, 2024 |
Orchids have been described as evil, mysterious, challenging, captivating, beautiful, the devil, sexual, an obsession...
John Laroche seemed like an interesting character. Susan Orlean found him to be the most "moral amoral person she had ever known" (p 6). Is this why she chose to write his biography? I don't think it was for the love of orchids. If I am being honest, Orchid Thief isn't a biography of John Laroche either.
A few facts I picked up about orchids: They can live seemingly forever; they often outlive their owners. They are incredibly durable despite being difficult to grow from seed. (As an aside, I now want to visit the New York Botanical Gardens to see the 150 year old wonders.) Here's something I can spout at a party the next time I need small talk: Charles Darrow, the inventor of the game Monopoly, retired at the age of forty-six to devote himself to all things orchids. What is it about these flowers? I see them at Home Depot and think they are garishly ugly.
Then there were all the things I learned about Florida: the development of the swamp lands, the way anything can grow there (I have a story about that for later), the mystery of Osceola's head. In the end, I came to the conclusion that the whole state of Florida was one big cesspool for scams.
All in all, Orchid Thief was entertaining. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Dec 12, 2023 |
Once upon a time, some 25 years ago, I went to a small orchid show at the Royal Botanical Gardens in southern Ontario, Canada. I wasn't a real fan of orchids before that show, but orchids turned out to be pretty interesting, some even beautiful, when all gathered together in one room. I bought an orchid for my kitchen windowsill. The flowers were green, a green with a yellowy undertone. Despite hearing about how difficult they are to keep alive, and my own lack of success growing any plant at any point, the orchid stayed alive for years. It took minimal tending, minimal water, and just sat there and looked pretty. Eventually it died, but some day I may get another.

I'm never going to be obsessed with orchids like the people in this book. When I say obsessed, I am meaning the sort of lust for orchids that supercedes the criminal justice system, which comes into play when you steal them from a swamp in Florida on state land, which is illegal, hence the word "steal". Some orchids are endangered species, and stealing them contravenes federal laws about the removal or killing of them. There are rich people who will spend tens of thousands of dollars to own some of the rarer species. There are break-ins, schemes, park rangers, the heat of Florida in summer, the Seminole Indian tribe, deep, dangerous swamps, and alligators.

At the middle of all this mess is John Laroche, whose trial for orchid-snatching drew author Susan Orlean to see his trial, and eventually to follow the madmen and women who populate this book all round southern Florida. She visits nurseries, swamps, orchid shows, orchid fanciers, judges, prosecuting attorneys, and anyone else who will talk to her about the deep obsession that fascinates her. Orlean tells John Laroche that she doesn't collect anything, but she's wrong, I think. She collects strange people, flies and drives thousands of miles to speak to them, collecting their stories and them in a way that has made her a successful journalist. The Laroche story was published in The New Yorker, which is how you know you've made it if you're an American journalist.

It was a great story. Orlean is drily funny, and laugh-out-loud funny sometimes too. I read another of her books, The Library Book, which I only half-heartedly liked, but this book I enjoyed mightily. I like hearing about strange people, about things I know nothing about, like orchids and bromeliads and swamps, and this book left me quite satisfied. If you want weird, I recommend this book. ( )
  ahef1963 | Nov 15, 2023 |
Month of November 2022 - The Thief Books

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998; 2002 ed.) 296 pages.

Setting: Florida (Fakahatchee Strand, Golden Gate, Homestead…near Naples, Florida)

It’s hard to believe a book can be written, and even be found interesting, about the extreme passion of orchids. But, here we are. And, believe it or not, orchid lovers have their own society…the American Orchid Society. And once every three years, the World Orchid Conference is held in different places around the world where awards are given out. It’s a cut-throat competition!

The author captures the atmosphere of the south perfectly. This book is part history, memoir, true crime, investigative reporting, and travelogue. I love her writing style and her humor. This gets a 4-star because the last quarter of the book did drag on a bit about nothing really. Otherwise, a super interesting bit of Florida history.

John Laroche, along with a few Seminole men, who actually had immunity from the federal endangered-species law, and had a right to harvest what they may, were caught illegally poaching more than 200 wild orchids and bromeliads out of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve (Florida), in an attempt to bring to a laboratory to be cloned and sold to orchid collectors around the world. Laroche thought he could use the rights of the Seminoles to collect the orchids, particularly the rare Ghost Orchid, to clone and become a self-made millionaire. That didn't pan out so well for him.

There are 11 species of orchids, the Ghost Orchid being one, that can only be found in the Fakahatchee and nowhere else in the U.S. Other native orchids were also found in the Big Cypress and the Everglades. Others were hunted down by hired orchid hunters in South America and the West Indies, and other jungles around the world.

For some reason, the various news articles on this story caught the attention of the author. She spent two years with John Laroche to get his full story, but ended up learning and discovering so much more about the rich history on native orchids that are so elusive, they only grow on tree branches in particular jungles. One seedpod can produce 50 thousand plants or more, and depending on its rarity, could be sold from $100, even thousands of dollars each, up to $10,000. The seeds take from 6-8 months to germinate, then a full seven years before the first flower is produced. Today, orchids can be cloned very easily by the billions and sold at any Kmart or Walmart across the U.S.

In the 1800’s, orchids were such cherished plants, that the rich (the only ones who could afford them) would hand them down to specially chosen loved ones to care for them after their deaths. One orchid can outlive many generations, if properly cared for.

This book is filled with very unique and rich history of the people, especially the Seminole Indians, and the land around the Fakahatchee Strand that you may not read anywhere else. So, if you are from this area, you will definitely enjoy and will relate to a lot of what she writes about. Of course, there was Hurricane Ian that just swept through Florida in October 2022, practically flooding and devastating the whole state. I would be surprised if any of the places mentioned are even still there.

Book-to-Movie

Adaptation (2002), starring Nicholas Cage (as Charlie Kauffman); Meryl Streep (as Susan Orleans); and Chris Cooper (as John Laroche)

Other books to explore:

The Orchid Hunters by Norman MacDonald (1939)

The Joy of Orchid’s: Fennell’s Orchid Jungle by Thomas and Dorothy Fennell (1984) ( )
  MissysBookshelf | Aug 27, 2023 |
This is a rollicking story about the author's attempts to get her head around the world of orchids and orchid collectors. Her way in is the case of an orchid thief who poached orchids from a national park in Florida. He is a larger than life character who acts as a guide for Orlean and whose tribulations provide some of the narrative structure of the book. Mostly, though, the book is just a chaotic jungle of anecdotes, history, character profiles and orchid botany perfectly relayed by Orlean's robust, exuberant prose. There are a couple of technical problems with the book, such as a certain amount of repetition and an occasional tendency for the prose to cross over from the exuberant to the sloppy, but in the genre of easy-reading popular science, this book is really about as good as it gets. ( )
  robfwalter | Jul 31, 2023 |
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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.

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