Behind the Beauty of Orchids, Centuries of Violence

Two large yellow and red orchid blooms appear in the foreground. A small hummingbird hovers nearby. Tropical plants appear in the background.

The year was 1787. A clamshell orchid (Prosthechea cochleata) quietly flowered under the care of a team of botanists at Kew Gardens in London. This was one of the earliest records of an imported orchid unfurling in a British nursery. One may say that the bloom was a harbinger of an era of orchidelirium, which would eventually grip Western Europe.

Illustration of a pink orchid

An illustration of Cattleya warscewiczii from Frederick Sander’s Reichenbachia: Orchids Illustrated and Described. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

By the 19th century, the wealthy and the scientific-minded in Europe were sending flower hunters on dangerous missions to the West Indies, South America, the Indian Peninsula, and Southeast Asia to chase after the newest and most exotic specimens. Not only did they put these flowers in greenhouses for display, they also brought them under scientific scrutiny. In other words, orchid flowers were on the cutting edge of science and aesthetics. The stakes were high in the race for rare, wild orchids. Hunters and collectors could win fame and wealth for prize plants. In 1890, British orchid collector and dealer Frederick Sander (who was appointed by Queen Victoria as the Royal Orchid Grower) auctioned a specimen of Cattleya warscewiczii from South America for £2,000. Adjust this amount for inflation, and the price is equivalent to about £236,000 in 2017.

Certainly, we shouldn’t assume that the orchid was discovered in the 19th century. There were many orchids in Europe, but their allure paled in comparison to the tropical genera such as the Ghost Orchid (which Europeans first encountered in Cuba in 1844) or Jumellea fragrans (which was first “found” on Réunion Island in 1822). As colonial expansion continued to open up exotic locations, the hunt for rare tropical and subtropical specimens escalated in response to the appetite for imperial products at home in Europe. Technologies of hybridization were made available in 1853, but for a long time collectors considered hybrid flowers less desirable than pure breed orchids from far-flung places. As a result, distant jungles and islands were combed and plundered by orchid hunters.

An elaborate glass case with many glass panels on the sides and glass panels that form a cone roof house a variety of plants.

Wardian cases protected orchids and other “exotic” plants. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It is easy to accuse naturalists and merchants of being exploitative, and certainly they were. But that is not the whole story. On one level, orchid collection seems like a frivolous pursuit and a self-serving enterprise. On another level, 19th century botanists and collectors saw themselves as acting with the noble intention to protect, to cultivate, and to bring the unknown under scientific scrutiny. The common assumption was that the greenhouse would be more fitting than the wilderness for the delicate orchid. Attempting to replicate the humid tropical habitat at home, European gardeners built poorly ventilated hothouses from thickly layered glass. The fact that many orchids did not thrive in these unsuitable conditions only reaffirmed existing assumptions about the flowers’ fragile beauty and their need for continual care.

What is striking is that the mentality behind orchid collection resonates with the logic of colonialism. Even when colonizers set out with the intention to “protect” people and resources from a more “primitive” state, the process of protection remained violent. As European collectors carefully tended the hothouse flowers, orchid hunters severely damaged the landscapes and ecosystems where the plants thrived; their loving attention relied on devastation. The colonial logic of “protection” still has the power to shape the stories we tell. It distorts our perception of the past; it makes historically inflected phenomenon seem natural. In Edwidge Danticat’s novel, The Farming of Bones, unexpected traces of colonial history and the seepage between care and violence become detectable through orchids.

Cover of novel, Farming of Bones, featuring close up photograph of a young girlAt the outset, the novel seems to focus on postcolonial rather than colonial history since it narrates the brutal regime of Rafael Trujillo. The novel revolves around the 1937 ethnic cleansing campaign commonly known as the Parsley Massacre—a bloody week in which Trujillo’s military slaughtered thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic, purportedly using the victims’ pronunciation of the Spanish word perejil as a method to decide who lived and who died. The narrator, Amabelle, is a Haitian girl who is orphaned when her parents drowned in the river that divides the two countries. Don Ignacio, a Spanish landowner who lives in the Dominican Republic, rescues her from the riverbank and takes her to his home. She stays with his family and works as a servant, leading a relatively peaceful life until Trujillo comes to power. Though she herself survives the Parsley Massacre, she loses her lover amidst the chaos. The book follows her through the terror of the massacre and the grief of its aftermath.

At first glance, the themes of this novel are obvious: dictatorship, loss, trauma. But as we dig deeper underneath the narratives of love and loss, we are able to find that subtler stories are being told by the flowers that lurk in the background of the novel. The proliferation of orchids sheds light on the imperialist practice of affectionate appropriation: colonial imagination and desire drive humans to seize natural objects and to endow them with new values. These appropriated objects, with their new semiotics, work their way into our culture and rewrite history.

Orchid: The Plant

In The Farming of Bones, orchids are strictly European. On the grounds of his estate, Don Ignacio cultivates the domesticated flowers as a hobby: they belong to and only to the garden. Amabelle watches as Don Ignacio tends to his orchids, “stroking petals and yanking weeds and rocks from the earth beneath them” (84). The pleasure he gets from nurturing his exotic beauties stands in stark relief against the difficult, painful work the largely Haitian labor force performs in the sugarcane fields. At the center of Don Ignacio’s performance of care is the belief that orchids need his care. Like the colonial orchid-lovers of the previous century, Don Ignacio imagines himself “protecting” the fragile flowers. Because Don Ignacio tends his orchids on the island of Hispaniola and not in a European hothouse, Danticat highlights the power of the colonial imagination. The successful rewriting of orchids as delicate objects under European care erases the fact that they were once wild plants growing without human cultivation in tropical locales. In fact, many species are naturally hardy.

A close-up photograph of the ghost orchid. A single flower fills the shot, its petals wafting in whimsical directions.

Native to Cuba and the Bahamas, the Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) was a prized plant among colonial collectors. Photograph by Mick Fournier.

Throughout the novel, orchids do not leave the confines of the garden. In the last chapter, Amabelle returns to the Dominican Republic to pay a visit to Senora Valencia—Don Ignacio’s daughter, Amabelle’s childhood friend, and the wife of a Dominican military leader who carried out Trujillo’s deadly orders. Amabelle recalls what she saw in the garden of their new home:

I wrapped my fingers around one of the heart shapes in the grillwork of the gate and peeked at a row of wicker banquettes between the flame trees in the garden, which was filled with twice as many species of orchids as Papi had ever grown. (291)

Trujillo’s brutal regime has ended by now, but insidious forms of systemic violence and exploitation continue to flourish, quite literally. Danticat strikes a bittersweet note at this moment: on the one hand, the garden is a heartwarming reminder of Don Ignacio’s well-intentioned, albeit paternalistic, care. On the other hand, the expansion of the orchid collection is evidence that more species are still being “discovered,” studied, catalogued, traded, and reterritorialized in greenhouses and gardens and homes long after the 19th-century orchid frenzy. Danticat’s use of passive voice in the description of the new garden—the space “was filled”—makes it hard for us to detect human intervention. A natural increase in species is unlikely, yet readers are tricked into a fantasy of a natural boom. Likewise, in a complex web of love, care, and terror, Amabelle remains blind to the lasting legacy of the violence that brought orchids to such an estate.

Orchid: The Image

As the price of orchids went up in the 19th century, so did the value of their image. In both Europe and America, orchid patterns were incorporated into fashion and furniture designs to signify class and sophistication. In 1889, Paulding Farnham, a designer at Tiffany & Co., created a series of naturalistic jewels inspired by orchids from around the world. This series of brooches is now known as the Tiffany Orchids. Orchid patterns also found their way onto dresses, furniture, utensils, and other household items. Given that Don Ignacio’s family is upper-class, it is unsurprising that patterns of orchids are also found on cherished objects in their household, most noticeably on Senora Valencia’s exquisite armoire and her expensive china tea set.

The flower is not a flower but a sacred object.

Under the shadow of Trujillo’s rule, the Europeanized orchids became a divider of both ethnicities and social classes within Danticat’s novel. Not everyone in the house is entitled to have access to orchids or objects associated with orchids. When Senora Valencia’s husband finds out that she let the Haitian cane workers use their china set to drink tea, he flies into a fit of rage and smashes the set against the wall. For Valencia’s husband, the contact between the elevated orchids and the debased Haitian farmers creates a cognitive dissonance. The flower is not a flower but a sacred object. Once profaned, it loses its luster and must be cast away.

At other moments in the novel, the sacred image of the orchid invites readers to explore more complex relationships of love, care, and violence. In a heartbreaking scene, Senora Valencia decorates her infant son’s coffin by painting her father’s orchid garden and four small hummingbirds. Amabelle sympathetically narrates her friend’s pain as she watches the mourning young mother adorn her son’s final resting place with the images she loves.

A single pink orchid bloom fills the foreground. Two green and pink hummingbirds hover nearby. The background is of a lush tropical landscape.

After visiting South America, Martin Johnson Heade began a series of paintings inspired by floral and fauna he encountered. “Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Orchids” (1871) is featured here. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet we cannot ignore how Senora Valencia’s knowledge of ecology, which is reflected in her painting, emerges directly from a history of imperialist practice. Although hummingbirds pollinate less than 2.8% of the world’s orchid species, the drawing feels accurate to Senora Valencia because it is faithful to a particular image propagated by 19th-century orchid community. Naturalist and artist Martin Johnson Heade, for example, famously put hummingbirds and orchids together in his paintings. In other words, orchids have been taken out of the context of their natural habitats and certain images of orchids have begun to circulate, taking on a life of their own. For Senora Valencia, it is “natural” to associate orchids with hummingbirds. It is hard to get at the real when we are fed images (in high art as in popular culture) of an ecosystem that has been re-written through the power of the colonial imagination.

The connections between orchids, colonial history, racial violence, and class divisions are almost lost today. Or at least that’s what I noticed when I went flower shopping at Trader Joe’s. What greeted me in the store was a row of pink orchids. Lined up under the bright lights of a supermarket chain store, tiny pots of dendrobium were being sold for $6.99 or $12.99, depending on their size. They have become, in other words, ordinary. But this does not mean we should stop paying attention to them. In fact, ordinary objects can be sites of vast histories. We need to look more carefully than Don Ignacio and Senora Valencia are able to in Danticat’s novel. We need to see a world system—a system where power imbalances influence how the human and the natural intersect—in objects such as orchids.

Featured image: Martin Johnson Heade’s “Orchids and Hummingbird.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Weishun Lu is a PhD student in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She focuses on colonial and postcolonial studies, and her project looks at the ways in which care and violence intersect in the appropriation of natural objects. Contact.

13 Responses

  1. Lilly Mayer says:

    Interesting Article

  2. Amanda says:

    Really fascinating take on Danticat that I had never considered before. Excellent work, Weishun!

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