Orchids are beloved for their singular, instantly recognisable 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. Jim Endersby offers a unique cultural history of this captivating family of plants, revealing their allure and wonder.
Following the stories of orchids throughout history, Endersby divides our attraction to them into four key themes: science, empire, sex, and death. He explores 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 colonisation. 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 colours, 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 stunning illustrations from the Kew archives, 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.
Jim Endersby is senior lecturer in the history of science at the University of Sussex. His first book, A Guinea Pig's History of Biology (Harvard, 2007), won the Royal Society of Literature's Jerwood Prize and was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His previous book with Chicago, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science (2008), was shortlisted for the HSSSuzanne J. Levinson Prize. His broadcast Crafty Orchids was aired on BBC Radio 4 in January 2016.