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Crafty Orchids

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a program I made about orchids on 26th January 2016. You can listen to it online, here.

Orchid: A Cultural history

I recently finished Orchid: A Cultural History that will be be published by the University of Chicago Press in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in autumn 2016. It covers the history of these extraordinary, beautiful and much-mythologised flowers, ranging from their earliest history, via Charles Darwin’s work on their fertilisation, orchids in film and literature, to a recent scientific study of the impact of climate change on native British orchids.

Every plant that has ever been important to humans – whether it provided food, shelter or bouquets for lovers – has acquired a rich range of complex (and often contradictory) associations. Humans seem to secrete allegories the way spiders secrete silk, so it is not surprising that particular flowers have come to symbolise everything from sentiments to nations, others feature in poetry or folk superstitions, still more feature in our mythologies, as well as in our religions, literatures, and medicine. Each human culture has constructed its own set of meanings around particular types of flowers. So the fact that orchids have their own very specific set of meanings is only to be unexpected but the meanings of orchids are some of the weirdest ever to have become linked to a plant. They are sexy but deadly. Slightly kinky, luxurious and expensive. Delicate “hot house” flowers, not really adapted to the real world, but capable of killing. Mostly found in mysterious distant jungles, orchids are often feminine and delicate, which may be why larger-than-life male heroes have to be imagined as the only ones who can bring them home safely. People will commit crimes for them, even kill or die for orchids.

I will be talking about orchids at various venues over the next year. I recently gave the John Innes Centre’s annual history of science lecture (21st April 2016).

I talked about my orchid research last year, when I give the annual Founder’s Day lecture at the Linnean Society of London (2 December 2014). They recorded the talk, so you can watch me in action.

  • There is more about the book on the Orchid page.