Susan Orlean, a New Yorker essayist, is fond of leafing through small-town newspapers. She knew she was on to something when she tripped over the following odd combination of words in a Florida daily: "swamp," "orchids," "Seminoles," "cloning," "arrest." The tiny news item, about an upcoming hearing for an accused rare-plant poacher, had "cool story" written all over it. And so, Orlean, a pale and completely unpretentious redhead who makes Maxfield Parrish's models look like she-bears, took off for Naples, Fla., to investigate. The scene was not exactly what she expected. Soon she was standing hip-deep in the steaming Fakahatchee Swamp beside the very man the fuss was all about, a driven, eccentrically charming weirdo who struck her as handsome despite his lack of teeth. Their quarry: the rare polyrrhiza lindenii, or ghost orchid, which is federally protected and grows nowhere else in the world.
John Laroche, the orchid thief, had been trying to spirit several pillowcases full of ghost orchids out of the swamp when he was arrested. That's how he first made the papers. His three Seminole assistants were supposed to legitimize the theft, since the Fakahatchee is Seminole land. It's not surprising that he'd risk his neck in order to snag such booty. Propagating and selling ghost orchids -- as the botanically savvy Laroche was fully able to do -- would have made him very rich. What's especially strange about "The Orchid Thief" -- and it becomes increasingly fascinating as the story progresses -- is what a big deal orchids are. There's a rollicking history of orchidmania in here, if you can imagine such a thing, and a series of cameos depicting nurserymen and international smuggling. Ultimately, Laroche turns out to be just another nut in a long line of orchid nuts.
Orlean's buoyant, self-assured style makes the journey fun, especially when she's looking at the plants themselves, which are astonishing in their variety. "There are species that look like butterflies, bats, ladies' handbags, bees, swarms of bees, female wasps, clamshells, roots, camel hooves, squirrels, nuns dressed in their wimples, and drunken old men," she writes, particularly dazzled by a flower that looks like a pig on a swizzle stick. "People say a ghost orchid in bloom looks like a flying white frog -- an ethereal and beautiful flying white frog." Are we going to get to see one? There's real suspense around this question, and it lasts until the very last page.