Notes & Passages from
"The Orchid Thief"

"Sometimes I think I've figured out some order of the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again." Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

'The time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of many things/ of shoes and ships and ships and sealing wax" Sinclair Lewis, Alice In Wonderland

"Like a family, it provided a way to fit into he world, to place yourself inside a small and sometimes crowded and sometimes bickering circle, and that circle would be surrounded by a bigger circle, and then an even bigger circle, and then finally by the whole wide world; it was some kind of way to scratch out a balance between being an individual and being a part of somethingbigger than yourself, even though each side of the equation put the other in jeopardy. This has always been a puzzlement to me, how to have a community but remain individual - how you could manage to be seperated but joined, and somehow, amazingly, not lose sight of either your seperateness or your togetherness. The two conditions go up and down like a teeter-totter, first one and then the other tipping te balance back. If you set out alone and soveriegn, unconnected to a family, a religion, a nationality, a tradition, a class, then pretty soon you are too lonely, too self-invented and unique, and too much aware that there is no one else like you in the world. If you submerge yourself completely in something - your town or your profession or your hobby - then pretty soon you have to struggle up to the surface because you need to be sure that even though you are part of something big, some community, you still need to exist as a single unit with a single mind. It is the fundamental contradictoriness of the United States of America - the illogical but optimistic notion that you can create a union of individuals in which every man is king." -p 256

"No one knows whether orchids evolved to compliment insects or whether orchids evolved first, or whether somehow these two life forms evolved simultaneously, which might explain how two totally different living things came to depend on each other. The harmony between an orchid and its pollinator is so perfect that it is kind of eerie. Darwin loved studying orchids. In his writings he often described them as "my beloved Orchids" and was so certain that they were the pinnacle of evolutionary tranformation that he once wrote that it would be "incredibly monstrous to look at an Orchid as having been created as we now see it." In 1877 he published a book called The Various Contrivances By Which Wild Orchids are Fertilized by Insects. In one chapter he describes a strange orchid he had found in Madagascar - an Angraecum sesquipedale with waxy white star-shaped flowers and "a green whip-like nectary of astonishing length." The nectary was almost twelve inches long and all of the nectar was in the bottom inch. Darwin hypothesized that there had to be an insect that could eat the unreachable nectar and at the same time fertilize the plant - otherwise the species couldn't exist. Such an insect would have to have a complimentarily strange shape. He wrote :"In Madagascar there must be moths with proboscis capable of extension to a length of ten to twelve inches! This belief of mine has been ridiculed by some entomologists, but we now know from Fritz Muller that there is sphinx-moth in South Brazil which has a proboscis of nearly sufficient length, for when dried it was between ten and twelve inches long. When not protruded the proboscis is coiled up into a spiral of at least twenty windings...some huge moth with a wonderfully long proboscis could drain the last drop of nectar. If such great moths were to become extinct in Madagascar, assuredly the Angraecum would become extinct." Darwin was very interested in how orchids released pollen. He experimented by poking them with needles, camel-hair brushes, bristles, pencils, and his fingers. He discovered that parts were so sensitive that they released pollen upon the slightest touch, but that "moderate degrees of violence" on the less sensitive parts had no effect, which he concluded meant that the orchid wouldn't release pollen haphazardly - it was smart enough to save it for only the most favorable encounters with bugs. He wrote :"Orchids appeared to have been modelled in wildest caprice, but this is no doubt due to our ignorance of their requirements and conditions of life. Why do Orchids have so many perfect contrivances for their fertilisation? I am sure that many other plants offer analogous adaption of high perfection; but it seems that they are really more numerous and perfect with the Orchideae than with most other plants." -p. 46-48

"We were in a hall of clones. Larouche said, a room full of artificially made genetic copies. Some of the orchids we were looking at were grown from seed or taken as cuttings, but most of them were made in labs. Cloning of plants is now commonplace, but the method has existed only since the late 1950s, when a French botanist named George Morel developed it while trying to figure out how to grow virus-free potatoes. Morel discovered that if he placed a few cells from the most actively growing part of a potato plant into a growing medium and provided hormonal and chemical stimulation, the cells would multiply. Plant cells are undifferentiated until they orient themselves to the earth and the sun by detecting the force of gravity and warmth; as soon as they get oriented, some of the cells evolve into roots and others into leaves and others into stems. Morel realized that if he kept agitating and twirling the culture dishes, the cells would divide but remain undifferentiated - they kept splitting into more basic cells rather than developing into plants. He let the cells divide into thousands of basic cells and then he stopped shaking the dishes, seperated the cells into smaller clumps, and placed the clumps in another growing medium in motionless culture dishes. In a while the clumps matured into thousands of plants, and each one was an exact genetic copy - a clone - of the original plant. Morel had a number of graduate students assisting him with the potato cloning experiments. One of them was a young man names Walter Bertsch, who happened to be an orchid fancier and also happened to be dating a girl who worked at a famous French orchid company. Bertsch tried applying Morel's cloning technique to orchids and discovered that many species responded well. This is how orchids came to be the first ornamental plant to be cloned on a large scale.

Before cloning, propagating orchids required a lot of patience. Orchids grown from seed took forever because the plants so rarely formed seedpods, and then the seeds take seven years to mature. Orchids could also be divided - that is, one plant could be divided in two or, at the very most, three- but the rate of increase was unimpressive. The science of cloning remade the nature of orchid collecting. It became possible to reproduce most species quickly and in large quantities and with perfect genetic uniformity, and that in turn made it possible to sell the plants at a reasonable price. Orchids used to live only in the wild or in millionaire's hothouses. With cloning, they could be almost as common as daisies. The finest orchids do still cost a fortune. A show quality Phragmipedium besseae is worth five thousand dollars or more, and species like lady's slipper orchids that resist cloning are still rare and cost a ransom. Many species, though, can be created in a lab - created in tremendous quantities with absolute uniformity. An orchid breeder can be a sort of sorcerer's apprentice, multiplying one plant into hundreds or thousands or even more. In theory there is no limit to the number of copies you can create. One bautiful plant could be clones and turned into a million." -p. 94-95


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