Orchid Muse

A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers

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Pub Date Dec 06 2022 | Archive Date Nov 30 2022

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A kaleidoscopic journey into the world of nature’s most tantalizing flower, and the lives it has inspired.

The epitome of floral beauty, orchids have long fostered works of art, tales of adventure, and scientific discovery. Tenacious plant hunters have traversed continents to collect rare specimens; naturalists and shoguns have marveled at orchids’ seductive architecture; royalty and the smart set have adorned themselves with their allure. In Orchid Muse, historian and home grower Erica Hannickel gathers these bold tales of the orchid-smitten throughout history, while providing tips on cultivating the extraordinary flowers she features.

Consider Empress Eugenie and Queen Victoria, the two most powerful women in nineteenth-century Europe, who shared a passion for Coelogyne cristata, with its cascading, fragrant white blooms. John Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, cultivated thousands of orchids and introduced captivating hybrids. Edmond Albius, an enslaved youth on an island off the coast of Madagascar, was the first person to hand-pollinate Vanilla planifolia, leading to vanilla’s global boom. Artist Frida Kahlo was drawn to the lavender petals of Cattleya gigas and immortalized the flower’s wilting form in a harrowing self-portrait, while more recently Margaret Mee painted the orchids she discovered in the Amazon to advocate for their conservation.

The story of orchidomania is one that spans the globe, transporting readers from the glories of the palace gardens of Chinese Empress Cixi to a seedy dime museum in Gilded Age New York’s Tenderloin, from hazardous jungles to the greenhouses and bookshelves of Victorian collectors. Lush and inviting, with radiant full-color illustrations throughout, Orchid Muse is the ultimate celebration of our enduring fascination with these beguiling flowers.

About the Author:

Erica Hannickel, a master gardener, is professor of environmental history at Northland College. The author of Orchid Muse: A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers and Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America, she writes for Orchids magazine and blogs at www.orchidmuse.com. 

A kaleidoscopic journey into the world of nature’s most tantalizing flower, and the lives it has inspired.

The epitome of floral beauty, orchids have long fostered works of art, tales of adventure...

Advance Praise

"If flowers are how plants have sex, orchids are the sexiest ‘harlot-nymphs’ of them all, as Erica Hannickel reveals in this delightful and exquisitely explicit ode to orchidelirium." - Adam Leith Gollner, author of The Fruit Hunters

"A fascinating survey of one of the world’s most intriguing (and provocative!) blooms, complete with lush illustrations and fascinating historical anecdotes. This book is an enchanting read for any gardener, house plant enthusiast, or history lover." - Jessica Roux, author of Floriography

"A fun fascinating romp through the history of the world’s favorite flower." - Bruce Rogers, author of The Orchid Whisperer

"Erica Hannickel’s gorgeously illustrated Orchid Muse is a reader’s delight—crammed with fascinating stories about everything orchid, from the pleasure gardens of the Chinese Empress Cixi to the shoguns of feudal Japan, a nineteenth-century female science fiction author with a passion for botany, the dime museums of Manhattan’s Tenderloin district, a little-known work by Charles Darwin, and the twelve-year-old slave boy who solved the mystery of vanilla pollination. This rich and delightful story of the voluptuous orchid is bound to convert all who encounter it to what the Victorians called orchidelirium." - Rebecca Rupp, author of How Carrots Won the Trojan War

"Here is a collection of stories made not only for those readers already passionate about orchids but also for the rest of us who had no idea of the history, drama, and sensual energy behind these flowers. At turns ambitious, entertaining, and surprising, Hannickel’s work rewrites the story of orchids to include women, queer people, and people of color from around the globe. Perhaps the greatest thing about this book is how it draws our focus to the intimate details of creation, inviting our gaze, seducing us into the voluptuous, delicate beauty of a natural world that ultimately—and more desperately than ever—depends on our care." - Paul Bogard, author of The End of the Night

"If flowers are how plants have sex, orchids are the sexiest ‘harlot-nymphs’ of them all, as Erica Hannickel reveals in this delightful and exquisitely explicit ode to orchidelirium." - Adam Leith...

Available Editions

EDITION Hardcover
ISBN 9780393867282
PRICE $35.00 (USD)

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Featured Reviews

Orchids are such a fascinating flower, rich in both variety and history. In this book, the author, a historian and orchid grower, takes us through the stories of twenty different people throughout history who have been obsessed with orchids. She has an engaging style of storytelling and really holds your interest. She also provides growing information at the end of each chapter for the variety of orchid she has featured. This is a must read for anyone who loves orchids and other flowers, as well as those who enjoy natural history. At about 200 or so pages, it is not lengthy, which makes it perfect for someone to explore a new interest as well.

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Rich and rewarding, Erica Hannickel's ORCHARD MUSE abounds with juicy stories, colorful facts, intriguing personalities--a veritable garden of enticements for anyone intrigued by the world's most voluptuous bloom. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to WW Norton and to Netgalley for the opportunity and pleasure of an early read.

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A fascinating book on those mysterious plants, the orchids. She’s done a great job of making the history and research interesting and entertaining as well as educational. The illustrations and photos are wonderful, and for such a visual subject add hugely to the book.

We get glimpses of other cultures as well, since it seems that orchids fascinated people across the world, and were valued then even more than in the present day. The Chinese, for example, have valued and bred them for more than 3000 years.

Flowers, and orchids in particular are associated with emotions, whether sexual or solace. Their scent is still used in high end perfumes, and they can lend beauty and colour to rooms with their long lasting flowers.

Their beauty has appealed to artists around the world and across time, including Frida Kahlo, and Proust wrote about the cattleya and it’s place in his characters’ love lives.

This is an uplifting book John Hope Franklin, who rose from poverty and a near lynching, to become one of the great scholars, was passionate about orchids. There are other characters brought to life, fascinating in their own right.

And she gives advice about how to grow and enjoy orchids, in this time, in this place, and to enjoy them just as others have across time and cultures.

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First, Orchid Muse is gorgeous, full of beautiful colour plates, it would make a wonderful gift for green-fingered friends. I’m not so green-fingered but I have managed to keep a few orchids relatively happy over the years and one of the reasons I got membership to Kew Gardens is its annual, often sold-out orchid exhibition. They are such fascinating plants and our relationship with them even more so as Erica Hannickel’s excellent book shows. She delves into history of cultivation and obsession with orchids and highlights diverse characters, from Erasmus Darvin to Frida Kahlo and Hollywood actor Raymond Burr who founded a successful business creating and cultivating hybrid orchids in greenhouses.

Orchid Muse spans continents and centuries, encompassing social, economic and cultural history but I particularly liked how at the end of each chapter, Hannickel offers useful and practical advice for orchid growers. There is also a very helpful terminology at the end. I’ll most certainly get a paper copy when published.

Highly recommended. My thanks to WW Norton and Company and Netgalley for the opportunity to read Orchid Muse.

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Fascinating doesn't even begin to cover it. In her book Orchid Muse Erica Hannickel writes richly about this most mysterious of flowers and includes stunning illustrations and dazzling photographs. My knowledge is (was) limited to growing a handful of orchids and searching for them in the wild in earnest. But my very curious brain was eager to learn more and I definitely did...in spades.

Amongst heaps of other things Hannickel explains historical information, terminology, growing tips, the interesting vanilla orchid, Helen Gould's incomparable collection, Raymond Burr's hybrids, conservation and the hefty price up to $100,000 some such as the wind orchid command. She describes fifteen of these beauties with an easy-to-read list of details from place of origin to fragrance (fancy jasmine, lemon, coconut or dog poop?) to flower size (up to 25 cm in diameter) to growing requirements.

Whether you are an orchid grower, collector and/or admirer do read this. Prepare to become even smarter.

My sincere thank you to W. W. Norton & Company for the privilege of reading this extraordinary book. The information is priceless!

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