Botanicult Fiction: The Flowering of the Strange Orchid
By Alex Henderson, Curator of Living Collections, Royal Botanical Gardens.
The Flowering of the Strange Orchid is a short story by H.G. Wells, first published in August 1894 in the Pall Mall Budget. It is a cautionary tale, the moral of which is that humans cannot always tame nature and that despite its immense beauty the natural world is often dangerous and deadly.
Winter-Wedderburn, the stories main protagonist, is an amateur orchid collector who lives a quiet life and is one day attracted to the sale of some orchids. The species in question have been collected from the Andaman Islands by a famous orchid collector called Batten. During the expedition Batten is killed in a mangrove swamp with an orchid crushed up against his torso with every drop of blood drained from his body. His death is attributed to jungle leeches. Wedderburn purchases species of Vanda, Dendrobium and Phalaenopsis. He also purchases the orchid rhizome found crushed up against the body of Batten which he believes to be a species or genus new to science. On his return home he shows of his new plants to his housekeeper who takes an instant dislike to the plant. She remarks that the rhizome “Looks like a spider shamming dead”. Placed in a hothouse the rhizome grows producing aerial rootlets. The housekeeper describes these as being like “little white fingers trying to get at you”. These eventually become tentacle like. In time the plant produces flowers with an overpoweringly sweet fragrance and Wedderburn whilst admiring these is overcome by the sickly scent of the flowers and collapses. After being late for afternoon tea the housekeeper enters the hothouse. She finds him lying face up on the floor with a tangle of the orchid’s rootlets (with leach like suckers) attached to his chin, neck and hands, leaving him white and bleeding from several circular patches. She manages to drag him free and destroy the plant and luckily Wedderburn makes a full recovery.
During the Victorian era when this story was written the term orchidelirium was a term used to describe the Victorian era of flower madness when collecting and discovering orchids reached extraordinarily high levels. Wealthy orchid fanatics of the 19th century sent explorers and collectors to almost every part of the world in search of new varieties of orchids and orchidelirium is seen as similar obsession to Dutch tulip mania. The story also mentions Charles Darwin and his prediction in 1862 that the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale from Madagascar, and which has an exceptionally long nectary must be pollinated by an unknown moth. Interestingly It took nearly 150 years for Darwin’s prediction to be proved correct.
This must be one of the first literary examples of where an author has taken the practice of hematophagy from animals and insects and transferred this to the plant kingdom. In doing so H.G. Wells perhaps created one of the first crossover science fiction/body horror literary tales featuring a blood sucking plant that went on to inspire future stories of carnivorous plants and their human prey. The Tale of the Strange Orchid can be acquired in many H.G. Wells literary collections, can also be read online and is available as audiobooks on YouTube. Perhaps the moral of the story is that you better take extra care the next time you ‘feed’ your orchid, mua, ha, ha, ha!
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