Susan Orlean was a staff writer for The New Yorker when she read an article about a white man and three Seminole tribe members who were arrested for stealing orchids out of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in Florida. Intrigued, Orlean went to Florida, where she stayed at her parents' condo, borrowing her father's car to conduct research for the article she planned to write about the case for The New Yorker. Once in Florida, her first order of business was to seek out the white man from the article: John Laroche.
Laroche might be best described as an eccentric. Intelligent but uneducated, obsessive but fickle, he was a skinny, often abrasive man with no front teeth and a deep fascination with plants. At the time, Laroche was working for the Seminole tribe, running a nursery on a two and a half acre plot of land the tribe owned in Hollywood, Florida. Prior to this, Laroche had been running his own business as a plant dealer, renting three greenhouses and attending major conventions where he sold rare, exotic plants. He'd become fascinated with orchids and hoped to strike it rich by cultivating and cloning an orchid that avid collectors would go crazy about.
It just so happened that one such orchid, the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), was native to the Florida swamplands and grew on land owned by the Seminole tribe. Unfortunately for Laroche, that swampland was also protected territory, which made it illegal to remove plants from the tribal lands. There was a legal gray area, however. Members of the Seminole tribe could feasibly remove or even kill certain plants and animals under specific circumstances—for example, one man killed a Florida panther, but was found to have done so for legitimate religious purposes.
This gave Laroche an idea. He could enlist three Seminole tribesmen to collect the ghost orchids for him. He would guide them through the swamp, but the Seminoles would remove the flower, and he would never touch it himself. This, he thought, would be enough to keep him from being convicted. Once the Seminoles got the ghost orchid back to the nursery, Laroche's plan was to clone the orchid and sell it on the market. If he could make the ghost orchid as ubiquitous and easy to care for as the daisy or the tulip, then he would make millions.
There were two problems with Laroche's plan. One being that the ghost orchid wasn't easy to clone. It was native to Florida and other tropical regions, such as Cuba, which meant that it needed a very specific combination of light, water, heat, nutrients, and surroundings in order to thrive. Conditions like this are difficult to reproduce in the lab and near impossible to reproduce in one's home. (Or, at least, that was the case at the time of the book's writing. Ghost orchids have since become far more common, due in large part to the research of enthusiasts like Laroche.)
Laroche's second problem was a legal one. Going into the case, he had hoped that he would be able to both take advantage of the so-called "Seminole loophole" in the law about removing plants from state parks and incite lawmakers to close that loophole for good. His argument was a good one, but didn't convince the...
(The entire section is 1304 words.)