illustrated white orchid nestled among red orchids

The Orchid Thief

by Susan Orlean

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The Orchid Thief Summary

One day, journalist Susan Orlean reads an article about the arrest of John Laroche, a white man accused of stealing plants from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Orlean travels to Florida to follow the case.

  • Laroche enlisted the help of three Seminole tribesmen to steal ghost orchids from the Fakahatchee. He believes that this was legal because there's a loophole in the law allowing Seminoles to remove plants from the preserve.

  • While investigating the case, Orlean becomes fascinated with ghost orchids. She meets many orchid enthusiasts, including Bob Fuchs, a man famed for his prize-winning orchids.

  • In the end, Laroche loses the case and is sentenced to six months probation. This causes him to lose interest in plants and become obsessed with computers. He guides Orlean into the Fakahatchee one last time, but she never does get to see the ghost orchid in person.


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Last Updated on May 23, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1304

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 judge in his case. In the end, Laroche was forced to take a plea deal resulting in six months probation and a fine. This infuriated Laroche. Orlean asked him about it afterward, and he said he felt "crucified." His interest in plants waned after his conviction. One day, Orlean called him and discovered that he had given up plants all together. "I don't have a single orchid anymore," he said. "I don't even have a single plant." He'd become an internet publisher, dealing primarily in pornography. Evidently, this was a good living. Laroche had finally struck it rich.

Orlean's book may begin and end with Laroche, but his isn't the only story told in The Orchid Thief. In the first chapter, Laroche takes Orlean to an orchid show in Miami, where she's introduced to the strange and intricate world of plant breeding and dealing. Orlean soon realizes that Laroche's fervid, almost insane enthusiasm for orchids isn't unusual. In fact, this obsession has spread throughout the plant world, making shows and plant conventions like this one elaborate affairs, including displays, vendors, booths, and, perhaps most importantly, prizes, which boost sales for the winning species of flowers. In effect, winning first place at one of these shows means influencing the genetic future of the plant world. In other words, winners survive to pass on their genes while losers are forgotten.

Laroche first rose to prominence in the plant world with his original display at the World Bromeliad Conference in Miami in 1990, but there are many other dealers who have found success both in and out of these conventions. One prime example is Bob Fuchs, a legendary orchid dealer who regularly wins all of the top prizes at conventions. In fact, he's so successful that other growers have started to hate him because of it. One man, Frank Smith, even allegedly broke into Fuchs' greenhouse to steal some rare, silver colored orchids. He was never charged, because there was no conclusive evidence to link him to the crime, but Fuchs is convinced it was Smith. This is just one of many intrigues that Orlean uncovers.

Orlean also spends some time with Tom Fennell, a famous orchid grower who became a millionaire when he won the lottery. For a time, Fennell's family ran a nursery called the Orchid Jungle, a major tourist attraction in its heyday. Tom takes Orlean to meet Martin Motes, proprietor of Motes Orchids (one of Fennell's competitors). Like all the other breeders, Motes is attempting to crossbreed orchids that will make him millions. His greenhouses are mostly filled with vandas, a highly prized genus of orchid known for its long-lasting flowers. Traditionally, most orchids take years to bloom, and those that do tend to flower for short periods of time—weeks or, in the case of the ghost orchid, mere days or hours. That's what makes breeding such a tricky and potentially lucrative endeavor.

Here it's important to note that none of these breeders (or, for that matter, their customers) would be this obsessed with orchids if the flowers weren't so unbearably, unspeakably beautiful. Of the ghost orchid she seeks, Orlean writes, "It has the intricate lip that is characteristic of all orchids, but its lip is especially pronounced and pouty, and each corner tapers into a long, fluttery tail" and because the orchid "has no foliage and its roots are almost invisible against tree bark, the flower looks magically suspended in midair." Orlean doesn't bother to hide her awe at the beauty of the flower. Throughout the narrative, she has been searching for the flower, just like Laroche, and has allowed him to guide her through muddy, snake-ridden swamps in search of the ghost orchid. At the end of the book, she confesses that she never did get to see one in person.

Differences from the Movie

Adaptation (2002) should not be considered a traditional adaptation of The Orchid Thief. Instead, it is a metafictional narrative in which the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, inserts himself into the film via the main character, Charlie Kaufman, who's trying to adapt The Orchid Thief into a film. This is understandably difficult, given that this is a nonfiction book about the search for an orchid that even the writer doesn't get to see. Kaufman alters the story, making Laroche and Orlean lovers attempting to manufacture a drug out of the ghost orchid. Kaufman uncovers their plot, and Laroche is killed at the end of the film. None of this happens in the book, of course, or in real life.

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