On the Origin of Orchid

by Jim Endersby

I picked up a copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s collection Hen’s Teeth and Horses Toes (1983), on the recommendation of an old friend and was hooked immediately. I loved Gould’s characteristic trick of beginning with a tiny, apparently insignificant detail. He would then contextualize and analyze, explaining and clarifying, but never over-simplifying. When he pulled back from that initial tightly framed close-up, it was usually to reveal a vast vista of time—geological, evolutionary or historical—giving his reader the chance, as William Blake put it, “To see a world in a grain of sand.”

Jim Endersby (right) receiving the Davis Prize from HSS President Bernie Lightman

Jim Endersby (right) receiving the Davis Prize from
HSS President Bernie Lightman

Under Gould’s influence, I returned to university and studied to become an academic historian, but tried never to write like one. As a student, I often felt that some academics made a virtue of complexity by burying their insights under mountains of impenetrable jargon. Whereas the writers I admired made complex subjects clear, so I’ve done my best to emulate them.

A few years ago a publisher invited me to write a short book for a series on plants. Each book was to take a genus or family of plants and explore its significance, from its biology and natural history, to its mythological, artistic and cultural meanings. As botany has been central to much of my research, I was very tempted, but temptations are there to be resisted (especially when you have two overdue book projects already underway). Fortunately, the publisher had included a list of the plants and authors who had already committed to the project, which gave me a way out. I wrote back to say I was flattered and would, of course, have loved to contribute, but sadly the only plants I could imagine writing about were orchids and they had already signed someone up to write about them.

Why orchids? Three reasons initially: Sidney Poitier, Raymond Chandler and Charles Darwin—each of whom had fueled my passion for these flowers. Poitier’s movie In the Heat of the Night (dir. Norman Jewison, 1967) features an amazing scene in which the suave and cultured big city cop, Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) confronts Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), an elderly, white embodiment of the racist South—and a passionate orchid grower. The two face-off in Endicott’s orchid house, who compares African-Americans to epiphytic orchids because, “like the Negro, they need care and feedin’ and cultivatin’—and that takes time.” Orchids have often been used like this, to represent a fragile, otherworldly luxury—hothouse flowers that cannot survive without expensive attention from their wealthy keepers. The scene ends (spoiler alert) with Endicott slapping Tibbs in the face—who slaps Endicott right back. (When the film was released in 1967, African-Americans in the audience cheered Poitier’s slap, while many white patrons sat in stunned silence.)

Raymond Chandler also used an orchid house for the opening scene of his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939). When his detective hero, Philip Marlowe, first meets his elderly client, General Sternwood asks Marlowe if he likes orchids, and the private eye replies “not particularly.” The General, despite owning a greenhouse stuffed with them, concurs: “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.” The association between orchids, sex and death, is an ancient one in Western cultures, but has never been made more vividly or memorably than by Chandler.

I can’t remember when or how I first became interested in Darwin, but it was Gould’s essay “Worm for a Century, and All Seasons” that first gave me a vivid picture of Darwin at work in his garden. I became particularly fascinated by his greenhouse, where Darwin would experiment with climbing passion flowers and carnivorous sundews, and was fascinated when I learned that the first thing Darwin did after publishing On the Origin of Species was to produce a book on orchids (On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing, 1860). The book was described by Darwin’s friend Asa Gray as a “flank movement” on the ‘enemy’ of natural theology, which interpreted natural phenomena like the mutual dependence of flowers and insects upon one another as proof of God’s benevolence. Darwin, by contrast, tried to persuade his readers that explanations based on natural selection, were every bit “as interesting” as the explanations offered by those who were convinced that “every trifling detail” of each orchid’s structure was “the result of the direct interposition of the Creator” (Darwin, 1860: 2). At some point, I knew I wanted to know more about Darwin’s orchids.

Yet, despite my various reasons for being fascinated by orchids, I wrote back to the publisher and declined. Assuring them that that I would really have loved to contribute, but it was orchids or nothing.

Six months later, I got another email; the publisher had good news—their orchid guy had dropped out, so the book was mine. Not the result I had expected, but I appeared to have written myself into a corner. I said yes, persuading myself that I could somehow squeeze a ‘quick 40,000-word book’ into the list of things I’d already undertaken.

Life, as it usually does, had other plans. A year later, as the Orchid deadline passed (and I was thinking it was about time I began work on the book), I was diagnosed with cancer, which was not much fun. (In fact, as I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, I feel entitled to say it was a pain in the arse.) However, cancer turned out to be less awful than I’d expected. I was tired and (as my wife, Pam Thurschwell, will happily attest) unbearably grumpy, but it didn’t kill me. The nausea wasn’t too bad and I didn’t lose my hair. I managed to keep teaching (thanks to the support of my colleagues at the University of Sussex), but found it impossible to write—the tiredness and anxiety made it hard to concentrate. So, while I was undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy and recovering from three rounds of surgery, I read about orchids. Starting with Chandler (my favorite comfort reading), I then got the hyper-intelligent, literary Pam (and her hyper-intelligent, literary Facebook friends) to recommend novels about orchids. I followed orchids from Proust to Jocelyn Brooke, back to ancient (and fake) myths and legends. The flowers led me to H.G. Wells’ creepy short story “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” (1894), and that led me to a whole genre of killer orchids. And of course, I read orchid science, from recent research on climate change back to Dioscorides and Theophrastus. And I finally made time to read Darwin’s little orchid book properly.

Thanks in large measure to Britain’s wonderful National Health Service, I was pronounced cancer-free six years ago. By the time I was finally well enough to start writing, my orchid book had clearly burst the bounds of the series for which it had originally been intended. I cut my first draft brutally, dismayed by the amount I had to omit, but could still only get it down to 59,000 words. So, I sent it to Karen Darling at the University of Chicago Press, who loved it but added the four most dangerous words one can write to an academic author, “it’s a bit short”… (When the book finally appeared it was more than double its original planned length.)

I researched the book (with Gould’s example still in mind) by following orchids wherever they led me, and among the many unexpected discoveries I made was that the cultural associations between orchids, sex and death played a role in the discovery of the pollination syndrome known as pseudocopulation. Darwin had been frankly puzzled by orchid mimicry, unable to explain why such plants as the familiar bee orchid (Orchis apifera) should so closely resemble a bee—and equally baffled as to why it failed to produce any nectar. Long after Darwin’s death, three naturalists (in Algeria, Britain and Australia) independently solved the puzzle, as they realized that these orchids have evolved to exploit an aspect of their pollinators’ life cycle. The pollinators of the Algerian mirror orchid (Orchis speculum, with which the discovery was first made), for example, are carnivorous wasps, who lay their eggs underground on the bodies of paralyzed caterpillars (thus ensuring that their newly hatched grubs will have access to a supply of fresh meat—a topic Gould wrote about in “Nonmoral Nature”). The male wasps hatch first and begin searching for females. Since early hatching increases the male’s chances of mating with a newly hatched female, natural selection has favored early hatching, so the males typically appear several weeks before the females. The orchids have evolved to exploit this gap, mimicking both the appearance of female wasps, but also their pheromones. The crafty orchids lure the hapless males into attempting to mate with them, after which the frustrated male flies off, covered in pollen, to the next seductive looking orchid and tries again. The orchid gets itself pollinated without having to pay with (biologically expensive) nectar.

Given that this evidence was all there, right in front of the ever-attentive Darwin’s eyes, why could he not see it? And why was it apparently so obvious in the early twentieth century that three naturalists discovered it almost simultaneously? The weird killer orchid stories provided the clue. They only began to appear after Darwin’s botanical work had been re-interpreted for broader, less-committed audiences. (Darwin himself admitted that a reader would need “a strong taste for Natural History” to get through his orchid book.) Writers like Grant Allen took the two most appealing aspects of Darwin’s work, the carnivorous plants and the extraordinarily complex relationships between orchids and their insect pollinators, and presented them as lively, engaging stories of plants. His neighbor and friend, H.G. Wells conflated the two into the first killer orchid story, in which—as with the numerous imitations that followed—the orchid was explicitly portrayed as a femme fatale, a highly perfumed seductress, determined to murder men. And it is surely no coincidence that Grant Allen also wrote The Woman Who Did (1895), whose independent-minded female heroine, Herminia Barton, described marriage as a “system of slavery” and an “unholy thing”—and refused to have sex with her lover until he promised not to marry her. Allen’s novel was a scandalous addition to the genre known as the ‘New Woman’ novel, which dramatized the lives of young women who were increasingly independent, both financially and sexually. (Wells wrote one of his own, Anne Veronica, in 1909.) Following orchids around persuaded me that their sexy but deadly cultural associations had been essential to an important scientific breakthrough. It seemed that it was only after orchids had helped fiction writers re-imagine women as sexually active seducers (with their own strategies and the intelligence to pursue them), that it became possible for scientists to imagine orchids as having the same qualities. As a result, a scientific fact that had been invisible to Victorians like Darwin, became obvious to the early-twentieth-century generation.

Discovering all these details about orchids proved immensely pleasurable. I had decided early on that Orchid would simply be the book I wanted to write, and deliberately gave no thought to whether there was a market for it, whose reading lists it might appear on, and whether or not it would advance my career (not least because there was a one-in-five chance that I wasn’t going to have any further career). I was pleased with the result, but did worry that it had become so idiosyncratic that nobody but me would ever want to read it. Darwin may have felt the same anxiety, when he admitted in his orchid book that he had described his orchids “perhaps in too much detail…” (My tendency to keep talking long after everyone is done listening is probably the only thing Darwin and I have in common.) So I was incredibly delighted when HSS dispelled my fears by awarding the book the Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize for “the best book for a general audience.” Any recognition from one’s peers is always a great pleasure, of course, but if I were greedy (and obnoxious) enough to choose the prize I would have most liked to win, it would have been this one. Not least because I feel that I’m partly repaying the debt I owe to writers like Gould, as well as my debts to Darwin, Chandler, Poitier and many others.