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Orchid: A Cultural History

by Jim Endersby University of Chicago Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 288 pages
AU$73.99 NZ$75.64
Product Status: Out of stock. Not available to order.
At once delicate, exotic, and elegant, orchids are beloved for their singular, instantly recognizable 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. What is it about the orchid that has enthralled the imagination for so many centuries? And why do they still provoke so much wonder? To answer, Jim Endersby offers a unique cultural history of this captivating family of plants.

Following the stories of orchids throughout history, Endersby divides our attraction to them into four key themes: science, empire, sex, and death. He explore 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 colonization. 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 colors, 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 gorgeous illustrations from the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 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.

Introduction: Imagining Orchids
1 Censored Origins
The Lesbian Boy
The Uses of Orchids
2 Red Book, Black Flower
Utopian Botany
The Signature of All Things
3 The Name of the Orchid
Making a Family
A Second Adam
Artificial to Natural
Myths of Orchids
4 Orchidmania
The Blooming Aristocracy
5 Orchis Bank
Every Trifling Detail
Beautiful Contrivances
6 The Scramble for Orchids
Lost Orchids
Cannibal Tales
7 Savage Orchids
Long Purples and a Forked Radish
Queer Flowers
Creation and Consolation
8 Sexy Orchids
Boy's Own Orchids
9 Manly Orchids
Frail Orchids
10 Deceptive Orchids
Orchids in Orbit
11 Endangered Orchids
Fragile Specialists
The Spider Orchids of Sussex
Conclusion: An Orchid's-Eye View?

"In this account, stories of how the mysterious orchid has gradually become known to science are inseparable from the peculiarities of orchid morphology and reproduction as much as from societal shifts in religion, class, gender, colonialism, and industrialization. Through this wide scope, from literature and cinema to herbaria specimens, from ancient Greek plant lore to today’s pressing anxieties about climate change, Orchids raises important questions about how to account for the long expanses, complexities, and dramatic shifts of botanical history—and why it matters. It is at once eloquent, illuminating, accessible, and witty."
Jim Endersby is a reader in the history of science at the University of Sussex. He is the author of A Guinea Pig's History of Biology and Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science.