Today we look back at the story that inspired the book The Orchid Thief.
We'll also learn about the incredible true story of a Madagascar explorer.
We hear words about the incredible Algerian Iris.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a memoir from a garden who pulls back the row cover on the remarkable story of her magnificent garden - a place she called Duck Hill.
And then we’ll wrap things up with the story of an incredible naturalist and botanist who had some very eclectic habits concerning preserving and utilizing specimens.
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February 19, 1962
Today is the birthday of the American horticulturist John Laroche ("La Rōsh").
Before John was arrested for poaching wild ghost orchids, he was a typical horticulturist. In the late 1980s, John was active in the Bromeliad ("brow·mee·lee·ad) Society of Broward County, and he was giving lectures on topics like “Growing Bromeliads from Seeds” and “New Techniques in Bromeliad Culture.”
By the early 1990s, John’s attention turned to orchids, and this passion would end up becoming a story fit for a book. One of the first newspapers to share the story was the Indiana Gazette on June 14, 1993:
“Susan Orlean's… "The Orchid Thief" tells the tale of John Laroche... When a fascination with orchids overtook him, he... conceived a scheme that would benefit the Seminoles, the world, and himself.
Using the Seminoles' exemption from laws against picking orchids in the wild, he helped himself to rare specimens growing in a Florida swamp called the Fakahatchee ("Fack-ah-HATCH-ee") Strand State Preserve.
His plan was to clone them by the millions, make them available to fanciers everywhere and thus save them in their wild state by obviating the need to pick them. Not incidentally, he would make a fortune for the Seminoles and himself.
But the law did not agree, and Laroche was arrested and convicted for poaching.
Attracted by an article on Laroche's arrest, Susan Orlean, a reporter for The New Yorker, traveled to Florida, befriended Laroche, and got him to introduce her to his world.
Near the opening of The Orchid Thief, Susan describes how she approaches her subjects,
"I read lots of local newspapers and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly any articles that are full of words in combinations that are arresting. In the case of the orchid story, I was interested to see the words 'swamp' and 'orchids' and 'Seminoles' and 'cloning' and 'criminal' together in one short piece."
Today it’s estimated that only around 2,000 ghost orchids remain in Florida.
February 19, 1932
On this day, The Shreveport Journal shared a story about the botanist Charles Swingle and his quest to find the Euphorbia Intisy ("in-tah-ZEE").
“Charles Swingle was the first American botanist to set foot on the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. He was on the trail of a peculiar rubber plant called "Intisy," which government scientists thought might be grown In our own Southwest.
When this young American arrived in Madagascar, he found he was just 15 minutes too late to catch a little coastwise boat heading to the south. The natives simply couldn't understand his disappointment.
"Oh sir," they said, "another boat will arrive in six weeks. In the meantime, there is rice for all —so there is nothing to worry about, good sir" In the native Malagash language, there is no word for "time."
They spend a few days a year planting, transplanting, and harvesting rice—and there's enough food for all.
"Don't the natives ever get tired of rice?" I asked Dr. Swingle.
"Not at all" be explained, "If they get tired of white rice they change to red rice or blue rice or brown As many as 64 varieties grow in Madagascar And then there are special delicacies to go with it—delicacies that are for those who like dried grasshoppers and locusts."
Dr. Swingle made daily trips to the village markets to get peanuts, bananas, pineapples, guavas, mangoes, or papayas to add to the hotel diet of rice.
On the sixteenth day of his march into the southern brush, Dr. Swingle sighted the first of his long-sought for plants—the Intisy plants. The curious bulbous roots were filled with water—the best they had had for many a day.
And the milky latex which oozed from its trunk was found to be pure rubber.”
The Euphorbia Intisy is a large, succulent tree growing up to almost 25 feet tall. Thanks to Charles Swingle, the plant was experimentally cultivated in the American Southwest.
Kindliness, so far as the Algerian Iris is concerned, consists in starving it. Rich cultivation makes it run to leaf rather than to flower. What it really enjoys is being grown in a miserably poor soil, mostly composed of old lime and mortar rubble and even gravel: a gritty mixture at the foot of a sunny wall, the grittier and the sunnier, the better. Sun and poverty are the two things it likes.
You should search your clumps of the grass-like leaves every day for possible buds, and pull the promising Bud while it still looks like a tiny, tightly rolled umbrella, and then bring it indoors and watch it open up under a lamp. If you have the patience to watch for long enough, you will see this miracle happen.
If you have not yet got this Iris in your garden and want to acquire it, you can plant it in March or April; but September is the best time for transplanting. It does not much like being split up and moved, so whenever you require it, do make sure that it does not get too dry until it has had time to establish itself. After that, it will give you no trouble.
— Vita Sackville West, English author and garden designer, In Your Garden, Algerian Iris
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2012, and the subtitle is Revisiting the Garden.
In this book, Page recounts her journey as she created her magnificent garden, Duck Hill, in upstate New York. Gardeners will relate to the challenges and the pleasures that Page encountered creating her masterpiece. Best of all, we get a chance to learn directly from Page as she shares her unique perspective on making a garden shine - from textures and structure to fragrance and color.
Page shares her garden’s story and her garden wisdom like she’s writing a story for a dear garden friend. Unpretentious and insightful, Page takes us on a delightful garden stroll through the evolution of her garden.
This book is 272 pages of a garden by a garden writer who shares the tender story of how they both grew old together.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
February 19, 1974
On this day, The Journal Herald out of Dayton, Ohio, published a little snippet about the naturalist Eliza Brightwen and her unusual needlepoint methods:
“If you are tired of the same crewel and needlepoint your friends are making, you might try a different type of embroidered picture.
About 1880, Mrs. Brightwen, a famous botanist, began making embroidery pictures using the bones from the heads of fish such as haddock, whiting, or cod. The bones were cleaned, boiled, and dried. They were used as the wings for embroidered insects or leaves for flowers. The design was usually embroidered on black velvet. The tiny fish bones were sewn into place in a pattern that was embellished with original embroidery.
This is not as odd as it might seem if you look today at the modern collages made with large animal bones, nuts, bolts, prune pits, and other ordinary materials.”
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