“He is a bully who feels that if he screams and yells and punishes you enough, he is going to get his way […] He’s both a genius and an asshole and unfortunately those things seem to go together.” (James Ivory)
And so the floodgates have opened. Allegations of sexual abuse by the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have been mounting all week. At the last count 32 women have come forward with their own molestation story. Charges have yet to be made and it will undoubtedly take some time to unpick all the events, but he’s been labelled a pervert now and that’s likely to stick. His alleged behaviour certainly suggests a sexual predator; ‘a person seen as obtaining or trying to obtain sexual contact with another person in a metaphorically “predatory” or abusive manner. Analogous to how a predator hunts down its prey, so the sexual predator is thought to “hunt” for his or her sex partners.’
Distasteful as this is, it might not be a surprise to know there’s similar sexual power-play in the flower world. Enter one of the largest families of flowering plants (around 25,000 species) and prolific the world over (found in six continents). The Orchid.
Orchids come in all sizes and all shapes from curvaceous to leggy, symmetrical and star-shaped. And in a hue of colours from sparkling white to sultry purple, some plain, some striped, some speckled. Highly decorative, their distinguishing protruding stamens belie a delicate beauty. Rare and unique for centuries (from Confucius to Darwin) they captivated; today they are available for all, ubiquitous supermarket showstoppers.
Their proliferation though is down to one reason, sex. They are sex-obsessed and sexually vociferous. And, like the sexual predator, it’s covert behaviour that has enabled it to flourish. With a pollination strategy that is masterly, convoluted, sly, and seemingly improbable they have evolved for centuries, in plain sight. How? By using clever mimicry, (they adopt the visual, aromatic, and even tactile behaviours of other plants), to allure pollinators in an orgy of self-satisfaction. Birds and bees alike fall for their allure. In time after realizing the Orchid has nothing to give, the unfulfilled pollinator will fly off and try it on with another (Orchid). This is exactly what the first Orchid wants; his pollen ending up on the stigma of another far away – it’s this that ensures their perpetuation.
Orchids are thought to date back to the time of the dinosaurs but the first associations with sex comes from the Ancient Greeks. There’s the story of Orchis, the son of a nymph and a satyr who attempted to rape a priestess at a drunken Bacchanalian festival. To punish him, he was turned into a flower, a ‘ballockwort’ or ‘testicle’, thought to be a reference to the shape of the Orchid’s pseudobulb. They also considered the plant to have aphrodisiac properties. In fact, they were so convinced of this connection they believed eating Orchids with large tuberous roots would result in the conception of a boy and eating those with small tubers a girl.
Today we are more likely to associate Orchids with elegance and beauty and wealth; the eminence of the flower world. But this admiration has come from an obsession, some might say an intoxication. “Orchidelirium” was coined by the Victorians to describe the madness inspired by these exotic flowers. It was they who spent huge sums to acquire the rarest types (ten of £1000s) sending naturalists and fortune hunters around the world… and often to their perilous deaths. Frederick Sander (the royal orchid grower to Queen Victoria, also known as the Orchid King) remembered in 1886, “Among my collectors who have died in harness I remember Falkenberg in Panama, Klaboch in Mexico, Endres on the Rio Hacha, Wallace in Ecuador, Schroder in Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa, poor Arnold on the Orinoco, Digance in Brazil and Brown in Madagascar. All these have met more or less tragic deaths through wild beasts, savages, fever, drowning, falls or other accidents.” Not surprising then that the Victorians considered them capricious.
And still now the powerful allure of Orchids can lead to trouble. In 2000, the British orchid fancier Tom Hart Dyke was captured by Marxist guerrillas while hunting for rare orchids on the Colombia-Panama border and held prisoner for nine months.
And thanks to our further fascination with the Orchid, we’ve ensured their future. As surragote pollinators we’ve enabled the creation of 100,000 registered hybrid orchids, most of them literally inconceivable without us. Today they are affordable and readily available. Still they can be tricky to home; they often very fragile and have very specific care requirements.
The more then that we consider the Orchid, the more we may wonder if we all haven’t fallen prey to their deceptive charms all along.
We may certainly love them a bit less.