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Botanicult Fiction: Nero Wolfe and An Obsession for Orchids

June 8, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens

Somewhat obsessive, meticulous detectives have been favourite characters in fiction since 1887 when Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to Sherlock Homes in “A Study in Scarlet.”

There have been many literary descendants of Holmes, including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Phillip Marlow, Perry Mason, and Jessica Fletcher. Literary tastes being what they are (changeable), one American detective who was very popular in the mid-20th Century has almost disappeared now: Nero Wolfe.

Wolfe was the creation of American mystery writer Rex Stout. He came onto the scene in 1934 and appeared in 74 novellas, novels, and short stories over the next 40 years. His origins were somewhat mysterious. Apparently, he was born in Montenegro and had served as a spy during the First World War. Some authors have speculated that Wolfe was the child of Sherlock Holmes and his arch-mimesis “The Woman,” Irene Adler, although Stout never provided such details.

Wolfe had several defining characteristics. By the time he was sleuthing in New York City, he was overweight, fastidious, and kept to a rigid daily timetable. There as one thing that Wolfe made time for every day in addition to his love of food and drink: he spent exactly four hours every day tending his orchids.

Wolfe’s 10,000 orchids were housed in an elaborate roof-top greenhouse. His favourites would be familiar to orchidophiles today: Miltonias, Cattleyas, Laelias, Onocidiums, and his beloved Phalaeonopsis. Wolfe made the transition from print to other media, including film, television, and radio plays, and in visual representations his orchids are often on prominent display.

Nero Wolfe and An Obsession for Orchids

Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation

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