If you keep up with the houseplant trends on social media, you might be aware that a famous plant Instagrammer going by the handle @Aroiddaddy (since deactivated) recently got caught stealing plants while volunteering at botanical gardens and selling them online (one year later, after bragging about it in private messages). But the plant world has always attracted grifters, and plant theft and poaching have been going on for a long time before this.
The plant community's growing insatiable lust for rare aroids drew me to revisit The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. In the 1998 book, Orlean provides a detailed history of the environmental and human costs of the "Orchid Mania" of the late 1800s/early 1900s and follows a modern day orchid hunter on his dangerous and ethically questionable quest to strike it rich in the plant world.
While reading, I was reminded of recent happenings in today's plant world. There's the LA-based succulent nursery owner who was arrested in South Africa last year for poaching over 700 succulents from the wild (and recently reopened his store in the same location under a different name). Or the continued uprooting of Dudleya along the California coast for sales overseas. I also recalled some screenshots shared last year of a seller bragging about how easy it was to pluck Aglaonema pictum tricolor from its habitat in Indonesia. And due to its current covetable status online, the Philodendron spiritus sancti faces extinction in its native Brazil.
As these stories pile up, I'd like to remind everyone that this is nothing new. History is repeating itself.
In The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean writes:
“Orchid fever usually prevailed over common decency. At its worst it was the same arrogance and sense of entitlement of European colonization, only in miniature. In the late 1880s an Englishman in New Guinea discovered a new variety of orchid growing in a cemetery. Without bothering to get permission he dug up the graves and collected the flowers. As an afterthought he gave the people whose ancestors he had disinterred a few glass beads for the disturbed graves and to persuade them to help him carry the plants to port. After this graveyard shipment arrived in London it was sold in a deluxe auction house for a record amount of money. Another hunter in New Guinea found some good orchids growing on human remains. He collected the plants and sent them to England still attached to ribs and shinbones. That same year a Dendrobium from Burma was auctioned off at Protheroe’s of London still attached to the human skull on which it had been found.”
The orchid-on-a-skull imagery is echoed today in our fascination with the rare, beautiful, and macabre, as well as our willingness to strip such things of their violent context for purely aesthetic value. It's no coincidence that Orchid Mania overlapped with the Victorian Era in England, and Victorian iconography is alive and well today in our interior décor, product design, and ways that we adorn ourselves. (Victorians were also fascinated by the occult and mystical––witch kits, anyone?)
There's a self-congratulatory idea on social media, which you especially see on holidays like Earth Day, that people who value plants for their aesthetic are more in touch with nature. Sometimes this claim will be paired with a tone deaf image of the poster stomping through wildflowers in the Carrizo Plain, or visiting an exotic locale on vacation. Based on mounting evidence of people collecting at any cost, I would argue that aesthetics, status symbols, and social capital are the stronger motivators at play here.
Our plant fascination exists in a historical and cultural context that we must not ignore. People have made and lost fortunes, driven species to extinction, killed each other and themselves over rare plants. If we are going to obsess over rare plants, we must also consider the people and ecosystems that are harmed by excessive collecting. If you are capable of doing the research on how to care for a rare plant and source one from the other side of the world, you can also do your due diligence to research whether it was cultivated by a responsible grower.
If you would like to learn more about the history of plant collecting I highly recommend reading The Orchid Thief. Please do not buy the book from Amazon. You can find it at a local bookstore by entering your zip code on Indiebound, or get a used copy from Thriftbooks.
1. Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief. New York: Random House, 1998.
2. "Frail flowers for which men risk their lives." June 26, 1904. New-York Tribune (New York, NY), Image 54. Library of Congress digital collection “Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.”