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Orchid: A Cultural History

By: Jim Endersby(Author)

292 pages, 12 plates with 15 colour photos and colour illustrations; 45 b/w photos and b/w illustrations

University of Chicago Press

Hardback | Dec 2016 | #230668 | ISBN-13: 9780226376325
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £22.50 $29/€25 approx

About this book

At once delicate, exotic, and elegant, orchids are beloved for their singular, instantly recognizable beauty. Found in nearly every climate, the many species of orchids have carried symbolic weight in countless cultures over time. The ancient Greeks associated them with fertility and thought that a parent who ingested the orchid root could determine the gender of a child. During the Victorian era, orchids became deeply associated with romance and seduction. And in twentieth-century hard-boiled detective stories, they transformed into symbols of decadence, secrecy, and cunning. What is it about the orchid that has enthralled the imagination for so many centuries? And why do they still provoke so much wonder? To answer, Jim Endersby offers a unique cultural history of this captivating family of plants.

Following the stories of orchids throughout history, Endersby divides our attraction to them into four key themes: science, empire, sex, and death. He explore how these have shaped orchids and how orchids, in return, have shaped our own investigations and associations. When it comes to empire, for instance, orchids are a prime example of the exotic riches sought by Europeans as they shaped their plans for colonization. Endersby also reveals how Charles Darwin's theory of evolution became intimately entangled with the story of the orchid as he investigated their methods of cross-pollination. As Endersby shows, orchids – perhaps because of their extraordinarily diverse colors, shapes, and sizes – have also bloomed repeatedly in films, novels, plays, and poems, from Shakespeare to science fiction, from hard-boiled thrillers to elaborate modernist novels.

Featuring many gorgeous illustrations from the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Orchid: A Cultural History tells, for the first time, the extraordinary story of orchids and our prolific interest in them. It is a tale sure to enchant not only gardeners and plant collectors, but anyone curious about the flower's obsessive hold on the imagination in history, cinema, literature, and more.

“An orchid thriller. Orchids are beautiful, strange, savage, sexy, mysterious, luxurious and expensive rarities. From H. G. Wells to Susan Orlean, and even James Bond movies, orchids turn up everywhere. Explorers have died searching for new orchids in faraway steamy jungles. Endersby traces the history of our scientific understanding of orchids, and their culture, from the Greeks to present orchid enthusiasts. You won’t be able to put down this lavishly illustrated and fascinating book.”
– Stephen Buchmann, author of The Reason for Flowers

“Endersby has written an engaging and enlightening account of one of the Earth's most mythologized botanical wonders.”
– Richard Conniff, author of House of Lost Worlds

“Endersby will convince you that the only things odder than orchid flowers are the minds of male humans. Although botanists, horticulturists and Charles Darwin blew away thousands of years of whacky folklore their facts were twisted, influencing many movies, detective novels and science fiction stories. The Victorian ‘Language of Flowers’ should be revised for the turn of the century until orchids become symbols of words like ‘Contradiction’ and ‘Suspicion’.”
– Peter Bernhardt, author of Darwin's Orchids: Then and Now

“In this seductive and clever survey, Endersby brilliantly shows how the range of meanings attributed to the extraordinary and beautiful varieties of orchid emerged from fundamental features of European culture, from classical Greece to networked modernity.”
– Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

Orchid compellingly demonstrates that the cultural history of these plants is as strange, wonderful, and varied – and as full of sexual mystery – as orchids are themselves. The relationships between the stories of orchids told by scientists and those told by writers, filmmakers, collectors, and journalists prove to be, like the relationships between orchids and their pollinators, overwhelmingly cases of cross-fertilization.”
– Jonathan Smith, University of Michigan-Dearborn


Introduction: Imagining Orchids
1 Censored Origins
    The Lesbian Boy
    The Uses of Orchids
2 Red Book, Black Flower
    Utopian Botany
    The Signature of All Things
3 The Name of the Orchid
    Making a Family
    A Second Adam
    Artificial to Natural
    Myths of Orchids
4 Orchidmania
    The Blooming Aristocracy
5 Orchis Bank
    Every Trifling Detail
    Beautiful Contrivances
6 The Scramble for Orchids
    Lost Orchids
    Cannibal Tales
7 Savage Orchids
    Long Purples and a Forked Radish
    Queer Flowers
    Creation and Consolation
8 Sexy Orchids
    Boy’s Own Orchids
9 Manly Orchids
    Frail Orchids
10 Deceptive Orchids
    Orchids in Orbit
11 Endangered Orchids
    Fragile Specialists
    The Spider Orchids of Sussex
Conclusion: An Orchid’s-Eye View?

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