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...
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Perhaps the biggest and most important theme in The Orchid Thief is obsession. This is what drives Laroche and his orchid lovers to search for the rarest, most lucrative species of flowers. Some might say that obsession is Laroche's defining characteristic. In his life, he has been obsessed with turtles, Ice Age fossils, old mirrors, plants, and, finally, computers. His obsessions are all-consuming: when Laroche loves something, his life revolves around it, and when he falls out of love, he removes that thing from his life forever. This kind of obsession is extreme, but can be found throughout the plant world and, indeed, in Susan Orlean herself. Her quest to see the ghost orchid is a kind of obsession, though she never achieves that goal.
Horticulture is a major theme in The Orchid Thief. It fuels John Laroche's obsession and even gives the book its title. Orchids—in particular, the rare ghost orchids—are the primary focus of the book, but there are many other plants grown by the horticulturists in this book. Bromeliads, sawgrass, and various forms of trees also make an appearance. Laroche himself grew a strain of marijuana that he claimed to have no chemical component, meaning that it could not get a person high. Many people in the plant world are driven by a mixture of love, obsession, and the desire to strike it rich with an especially virile and beautiful plant. In effect, horticulture becomes their way of life.
It is no surprise that the theme of money runs throughout The Orchid Thief. Money is the reason that Laroche tries to steal plants from the Fakahatchee Strand in the first place—his plan was to clone the ghost orchid and make it possible for anyone to grow them at home, thus opening sales of the ghost orchid to the public and making himself a large profit. Millions, he hoped. His desire to make millions may be more overt than that of the other plant dealers Susan Orlean meets, but it's an essential part of the plant world. Everything dealers do—cross-breeding plants, going to shows and conventions, and entering competitions—is geared toward one goal: finding that one plant that will make them rich.
Susan Orlean describes Laroche as "the most moral amoral person [she'd] ever known." By that, she means that Laroche made a habit of breaking the law but having halfway noble reasons for doing so. For example, when he sold his guide to growing marijuana, he did so knowing that the plants people would grow with his guide would be ineffective, meaning they wouldn't have any narcotic effect. In certain lights, his plan to steal plants from the Fakahatchee also had a noble goal: he wanted to take advantage of the loophole in the law in order to expose it—and, hopefully, close it. Though Laroche has what he considers legitimate reasons for breaking the law, he's still a criminal.