On Books -- `Orchid Thief' Blooms With Facts And Fantasy

------------------------------- "The Orchid Thief" By Susan Orlean Random House, $25 -------------------------------

Some books, in their opening lines, seem to say to their readers, "Get a taste of this - and then see if you can resist turning the page."

Example: "John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games."

That's the opening of Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief," a book that confidently delivers on the seedy yet electric promise of the figure evoked in those two sentences.

Orlean - a staff writer for The New Yorker who once worked for Portland's Willamette Week - first came across mention of Laroche in a small-town newspaper article about the arrest of a white man and three Seminole Indians for smuggling orchids out of Florida's Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. The thieves' stated goal: to preserve an endangered orchid species by cloning it on a mass-production scale and then retailing it, thus making a fortune for Laroche and the Seminole nation in the process.

Orlean explains, "I was interested to see the words `swamp' and `orchids' and `Seminoles' and `cloning' and `criminal' together in one short piece. Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more."

Indeed it does. The Fakahatchee trial of the four men, on smuggling charges, leads Orlean into a whole world of plant thieves, international smugglers and orchid collectors. As Orlean explores this world, she resists - with considerable difficulty - the temptations of orchid collecting herself, and offers incisive commentary on the rewards and pitfalls of the collector's mindset.

Orlean has done her research and serves up orchid facts and figures in abundance. There are more than 60,000 known species, she tells us, along with thousands more unknown or extinct, and 100,000 or so man-made hybrids. The plants often appear "smarter" than the insects that pollinate them, raising questions of how their complex reproductive methods evolved. International trade in orchids now totals more than $10 billion annually, and individual plants can fetch more than $25,000.

She also knows her orchid history, informing us that the British Herbal Guide of 1653 warned that orchids "provoke lust exceedingly"; that the introduction of sealed glass containers in the 1830s to transport plant specimens greatly enhanced survival rates for orchids en route from the tropics to northern climes; and that being an orchid hunter, especially in the Victorian era, meant "pursuing beautiful things in terrible places." A litany of drownings, murders, disease fatalities and disappearances ("Micholitz is perhaps eaten - we hear nothing") backs up this last statement.

Closer to home, Orlean confirms that orchid fever continues unabated in the 1990s as she makes the rounds of orchid exhibitions and conferences in the greater Miami area. She chronicles feuds between rival orchid growers and discovers the existence of a "Florida orchid aristocracy."

Still, it's Laroche who occupies the spotlight here, once Orlean has documented the full extent of "orchidelirium," past and present, and double-checked what state and federal laws have to say about the Seminoles' hard-won right to take any plant life they like out of state nature preserves. Laroche is vocal about his own agenda - "I'm working for the Seminoles but I'm really on the side of the plants" - and he's frank about his preference for living "at the edge of ethics." Part zealot, part gadfly, he draws both affection and antagonism from those around him. There's an irrepressible mad scientist at work in him, too. ("Mutation's great! Mutation's really fun!" he enthuses as he tells of using household chemicals and microwave cooking to develop new orchid varietals.)

Orlean brilliantly captures both his appearance and his manner ("low, slushy voice . . . drowsy, cross, suspicious as a tax examiner's"), and sees something both pitiable and moving in his orchid obsession and his personal history, details of which emerge only slowly. Indeed, the book at its deepest level is about Orlean's own efforts to understand how people find "order and contentment and a sense of purpose in the universe by fixing their sights on one single thing or one belief or one desire."

Her quest to see the elusive "ghost orchid" serves as linchpin for an amiably meandering narrative that includes chapters on Seminole history and Florida real-estate scams.

Quibbles: Some statistics here beg for source citation. How, for instance, do we know that 700,000 iguanas were smuggled into the U.S. through Miami in 1996? A typo on the same page (the Venezuelan capital is given as "Caracus") makes you wonder if that "700,000" should actually read "7,000." Also, given Orlean's emphasis on the peculiarities of Florida's amphibious landscape, it would help to have a fuller explanation of how the peninsula first emerged from the ocean 12,000 years ago (as she states) when most of the East Coast was being swamped by end-of-ice-age flooding.

None of this stops "The Orchid Thief" from being a zestfully informative and entertaining read. Orlean's writerly verve handily matches the passions of her orchid-lovers, in a book that positively blooms with exotic sights and eccentric personalities.