For the ecologist, wariness is common when approaching a new natural history tome. This feeling was powerful when I picked up young botanist Leif Bersweden’s book recently. It is perhaps stereotypical for this family of plants to attract the attention of botanists and non-botanists, and within ‘The Orchid Hunter’ the oft-quoted early botanists reveal that this is not a new phenomenon, people have dedicated their entire lives searching out favourite species of orchid.
Given Leif’s objective, it is perhaps unsurprising that the book is a little formulaic: a (usually) brief search, discussion of its historical and current status (often with a substantial excerpt from another book or piece of writing, usually Jocelyn Brooke) and description of the flower. Those quoted extracts gave the impression that Leif felt sub-standard in comparison to his obvious heroes and I quickly lost confidence in his own story. This is not to say there isn’t some good writing in here, there is, and Leif does an admirable job in conjuring up descriptions of each flower that are not too repetitive.
In terms of the narrative, it’s entirely predictable. The vast majority of these orchid species are easy to find and he has many contacts to help him track down the more difficult ones. Many of the rarest even had cages, sticks or other markers to assist him. The thrill of the chase, and this is big for me personally, just isn’t here, despite the author sometimes attempting to make only partly tricky scenarios sound like an escape from Alcatraz. The (undoubtedly fruitless) chase could have come with the Ghost Orchid, but this is written off from the start, due to its extreme rarity, aside a cursory three hours in a beech woodland in the Chilterns (which included a bizarre description of his feelings when leaving the wood).
The lone botanist’s search for likeminded friends, perhaps a companion, adds little to the story and whilst his enthusiasm shines through, that struggles to make up for the predictability and lack of excitement that such an objective was always likely to conjure.