It sometimes seems as if madness and flowers grow from the same garden. The Greek hunter Narcissus, who was so obsessed with his reflection that he died staring at it, shares his name with the gaudy daffodil. Orchids have driven people to crime, even to their death, while other plants offer cures—or hallucinatory delirium—upon ingestion. Plants have even been muses, inspiring artists as diverse as Georgia O’Keeffe and Roger Corman.
Flowers have inspired irrational behavior on an international scale. In the 17th century a bouquet could send an investor into bankruptcy in the Netherlands, where indigenous blooms paled in comparison with the exotic hues of goblet-shaped tulips imported from Turkey. The Dutch particularly treasured the crimson-and-white-streaked tulip Semper Augustus (its pattern is actually caused by an infection), which sparked the first speculative futures market. At the height of the so-called tulip mania, when a bulb could cost a merchant his yearly income, the less wealthy mortgaged their possessions to get in on the market. Then, seemingly overnight, demand shriveled, and tulip entrepreneurs were left with nothing but debt and pretty flower beds. A century later, during the Ottoman Empire’s Tulip Period, when bulbs again fetched outrageous sums, the state intervened, forcing regulations on bulb prices.
In Victorian England, orchids became the rage, celebrated for their strange shapes, outlandish colors and peculiar cultivation requirements. Rich collectors and their proxies traveled the globe from Africa to South America to bring home delicate specimens. Such trips were dangerous, and many adventurers were felled by murder and disease. Those who risked their life and fortune for a flower were diagnosed with “orchidelirium.”
The purpose of an orchid flower, like any blossom’s, is reproduction. Floral colors, patterns, shapes and aromas have evolved to attract pollinators—birds and bees among them—with the goal of fertilization. Throughout history, people have assigned a gender to the orchid and characterized its flowers as erotic, seductive and alluring. Prudish collectors of Victorian England considered some orchids too obscene to be witnessed by those with delicate sensibilities (namely women and children) and cloistered them away. Spanish conquistadors gave the name vainilla (“vanilla”), derived from the Latin word vagina, to a Mexican orchid that yields a culinary extract. And they were not the last to see womanly signatures on the plants. To some observers, painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s enlarged portrayals of orchid blossoms trumpet the plants’ yonic qualities. Her 1941 pastel Narcissa’s Last Orchid, a close-up of creamy-white and pink-tinged petals and sepals, makes some viewers think of a vulva. O’Keeffe denied that she intended her flower paintings to recall genitalia, explaining to one writer, “You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.”
Despite the blossom’s perceived feminine associations, the word orchid has masculine roots: It is derived from the Greek orkhis (“testicle”), a reference to the orchid tuber’s shape. A Turkish drink brewed from ground orchid tubers, salep (“fox testicles”), is said to aid the impotent. Liverworts, plants with liver-shaped growths, were long used to treat liver ailments, while spleenworts, whose fronds carry structures reminiscent of tiny spleens, were thought to be good for the spleen. The “doctrine of signatures,” the idea that plant parts can heal the parts of the human body they resemble, was promoted by 16th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus. He claimed that nature and humankind are linked by a divine essence and that the plants’ “spirits” are seen in their external markings. Of an orchid tuber, he wrote, “Is it not shaped like the groin of a man? Nobody can contradict that. Because of that…it can restore in men their lost virility and enjoyment.” He also promoted thistle plants, with their needle-like blooms, as able to perform “inner stitching.” That alarming recommendation aside, Paracelsus was an important early contributor to pharmacology. Plants and healing have been intertwined for millennia, and herbal guides are among the first known publications.
Sun-stroked New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keeffe painted most of her work, is part of the native range of Datura, a genus of the nightshade family. Its species are vespertine, opening in the evening and emitting a fragrance to lure nocturnal moths for pollination. In 1936 O’Keeffe rendered Datura stramonium for her largest floral painting, Jimson Weed, commissioned by cosmetics tycoon Elizabeth Arden. The canvas depicts four flowers set, oddly for a night bloomer, against what appears to be a blue sky hung with clouds.
But jimson weed doesn’t need an acclaimed painter to cast a spell. Jimson comes from Jamestown, the name of the first English settlement in America. After British soldiers ate the plant’s leaves in a salad, they spent 11 days hallucinating, in what one historian described as a “very pleasant Comedy.” Jimson weed has been used as a curative and in spiritual rituals for centuries, but too much can be fatal. In many plants, in fact, the line between salutary and deadly is thin. The father of toxicology, Paracelsus, wrote, “The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy.” Opiates milked from poppy pods, for instance, are painkillers in small quantities but in overdoses cause permanent dozes.
In The Orchid Thief, journalist Susan Orlean writes about John Laroche, a chain-smoking horticultural bandit arrested for poaching orchids from the Fakahatchee swampland in Florida’s Everglades. Partnering with the Seminole tribe, Laroche conceived a grand, slightly deranged scheme to clone the rare and beautiful ghost orchid. Existing only in the wild, the plant is nearly impossible to find, and the Endangered Species Act protects it in the U.S. By duplicating the orchids in a lab, Laroche hoped to become a millionaire and, altruistically, render orchid thievery pointless. “I’m really on the side of the plants,” he reasons.
In adapting The Orchid Thief into a movie, titled Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman deviated wildly from Orlean’s reportage. Kaufman turned the ghost orchid into the source for a psychotropic drug and devised a torrid love affair between the orchid-dust-snorting Orlean and Laroche. Transforming the spectral flower into a drug is not all that far from the truth, for the real-life inhabitants of Orlean’s book fret over and search for these plants with addict-like urgency. Orlean’s own admission about one flower—“I thought I might die if I couldn’t have this one”—affirms the orchid’s peculiar capacity to stoke obsession.
In Adaptation, fictionalized screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) has an existential crisis while trying to adapt The Orchid Thief, a nonfiction book about orchids, their collectors and a strange case of poaching in the Everglades. Plagued by his own neuroses, the self-loathing Kaufman cannot find a suitable way to close his script. Only when he is half-submerged in a swamp and hunted by hallucinating gunmen does Kaufman finally adapt and begin to fashion an ending.
Charles Darwin popularized the concept of evolutionary adaptation: the behavioral and physiological adjustments an organism makes to subsist. The English scientist called the highly evolved, carnivorous Venus flytrap “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.” In its native peaty bogs of the Carolinas, the plant is rooted in soil devoid of many nutrients; it augments its diet by catching spiders and bugs in a hinged leaf that snaps shut when triggered by tiny hairs; it then breaks down the critters over about 10 days. Flytraps are believed to have descended from species with less-effective sticky traps that inadvertently collected refuse blown in the breeze. Such an evolutionary change shows how much a species can achieve when challenged to survive.
The Venus flytrap’s genus name, Dionaea (“daughter of Dione”), refers to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love; Venus is her Roman counterpart. A carnivorous, jawed botanical butcher that clamps down on unsuspecting victims in less than a second, the plant is a strange advocate for love. Its pairs of toothed, entrapping leaves resemble the fabled vagina dentata. In outsize form it’s perfect fodder for a horror film. The plant nicknamed Audrey Junior that stars in legendary B-movie director Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors is a cross between a Venus flytrap and a butterwort (another type of insect-eating plant). Audrey’s caretaker, Seymour, discovers the flytrap has a thirst for human blood, and each time he feeds her a fleshy morsel, she grows larger and more voracious. Hoping to gain a fortune with his intriguing plant, Seymour keeps feeding Audrey, with disastrous results. In the short story “Green Thoughts” (1932), which allegedly inspired The Little Shop of Horrors, fantasy writer John Collier describes the avid orchid-loving protagonist, Mr. Mannering, as “idiotic, foolhardy, doom-eager” when faced with a mysterious new specimen. Such ignorance about nature, the story warns, may lead to unfortunate situations and strange human-floral relations.
The people-eating plant in The Little Shop of Horrors represents an extreme adaptation for survival. A plant adapts to its environment so it may live; it needs exposure to sunlight for photosynthesis and adequate soil and water for nutrient absorption. But for the species, the evolutionary imperative is to reproduce. The Little Shop of Horrors doesn’t delve into how Audrey Junior might procreate, considering only her appetite. When creatures come near her she simply eats them, while ordinary plants lure flies, bees, hummingbirds, moths, butterflies and even bats for the complex process of pollination, so their flowers will be fertilized and eventually produce seeds for regeneration. Orchids display myriad adaptations to attract pollinators. Some stink like rotting meat, drawing flies. Australian hammer orchids mimic the figure of female wasps in order to motivate lusty male wasps to “mate” with them—the flower gets pollinated, but the wasp doesn’t fulfill his mission to reproduce. Bucket orchids entice male bees into a pool of fluid, from which they cannot escape without being covered with pollen. The fluid, quid pro quo, imbues the bee with a scent that attracts the female bee—and everybody comes out smelling like a rose.