Nitpicking Flowers

When you write a book about fanatics, you might expect to offend a few of them, even if the book is, essentially, about flowers.

In the six months since its publication, The Orchid Thief, the best-selling South Florida-based tale of plant crimes and orchid obsession by The New Yorker magazine writer Susan Orlean, has offended its share of the florally fixated. Less expectedly, the book's frequent non-floral digressions have managed to enrage many outside the orchid community, including a Hollywood historian and a Washington, D.C.-based Everglades lobbyist.

These critics say the nonfiction book's novel-like narrative presents a distorted view of the Seminoles, of orchid lovers, and of the Everglades itself. And to top it all off, they say, it is packed full of myths and misspellings, erroneous figures, and downright lies.

"There are countless egregious errors of botanical fact," declares Ned Nash, director of education for the West Palm Beach-based American Orchid Society. Nash's criticism is ironic considering that he reviewed portions of Orlean's prepublication manuscript for orchid accuracy and is acknowledged as having done so in the book's opening pages. Despite his input he says numerous species misspellings and other errors found their way into the book. "She puts the number of orchid species at 60,000, whereas I've never seen an estimate higher than 30,000," says Nash, who was so worried that he might be blamed for Orlean's inaccuracies that he considered filing a lawsuit against her. "I wrote a letter to the publisher asking for them to remove my name from future printings," he says. "So far I've received no response."

The meandering 282-page book lists the names of countless orchids and other flora and recounts with careful precision the hundred-year history of the often deadly pursuit of wild orchids. (Victorian-era orchid-hunters often traveled to the most remote Third World jungles in search of prized orchid specimens.) The author also devotes considerable space to both Everglades ecology and Seminole history.

Holding all these facts and historical anecdotes together is the story of John Laroche, an orchid eccentric and fumbling con artist, who a few years ago was nabbed swiping rare ghost orchids -- fragile, papery white flowers that bloom only in early summer -- from the Fakahatchee Strand, an inhospitable strip of swamp at the southwestern edge of the Everglades. At the time of his arrest, Laroche was in charge of the nursery at the Hollywood headquarters of the Seminole tribe, where he and a number of Seminole coconspirators hoped to clone the federally protected orchids and make gobs of money selling them to rabid collectors.

No one in the Orlean-bashing stable interviewed for this story attacks the basic factual framework that drives the narrative. Instead they dwell on an agglomeration of seemingly inconsequential facts that taken as a whole, they say, call into question the credibility of the entire piece.

"The author is playing fast and loose with the truth in order to create a sellable [sic] story," says Patricia Wickman, a historian and author who heads the department of anthropology and genealogy for the Seminole tribe in Hollywood. "As a professional historian, this book offends me." Wickman attacks much of the historical information in the chapter entitled "Osceola's Head," which is largely devoted to the 19th-century Seminole chief whose head was removed following his death. (Contrary to Orlean's description, the head was not, Wickman says, ever displayed in a North Florida drugstore window.) To point up the errors she found, Wickman penned a scathing article about the book that is scheduled to run in an upcoming issue of the Seminole Tribune.

"The worst thing about The Orchid Thief is the way it portrays the Seminole people as stupid, greedy, ugly cartoons," says Joe Browder, a former Carter-administration appointee who has been a long-time Washington lobbyist for the Everglades. His assertion that the Seminoles come off looking like greedy dopes because they appear to go along with Laroche's orchid-cloning scheme is questionable considering the fact that, in the end of the story, the tribe wound up firing the nurseryman. Browder is disturbed not only by Orlean's words but also by some of those attributed to members of the tribe. He says he is particularly concerned about passages attributed to Laroche's boss at the tribe, Buster Baxley, whose contempt for the Everglades is evident in quotes like "the state of Florida better not mess around with what's my right [or] I'll go in there and take every single thing in the Fakahatchee that's alive."

Browder compiled a three-page list of errors and misstatements relating to the Everglades and the Fakahatchee, which he sent to New Times. "By themselves the Everglades errors may not be that important," says Browder. "But considering the way the Seminoles come across, these mistakes make you think everything else could be wrong."

Orlean, who spent two years writing and researching the book, takes considerable exception to these thorny appraisals of her work. "I don't think I painted anyone with a broad brush," she said recently by phone from her office at The New Yorker. "Of course there's a certain margin for error in any book. I'm not happy about any errors getting in, but I haven't found anything inaccurate that speaks to the soul of the book." Orlean acknowledged that some errors had in fact slipped past fact-checkers and copyeditors but that every effort was being made to correct them in future printings. "I wanted to take people on a journey," she explained. "By and large I've had a great response."

Aside from the errors, it is the very tone of the book -- often light and breezy -- that offends those most passionate about the Everglades and the flora, fauna, and Native Americans who call it home. The book is "virtually smothered in flashy, sensationalist adjectives," writes Wickman in her upcoming column, "Holashkoan," which means "It's a Lie" in the Miccosukee language. "In the 1980s we used to call [this kind of writing] flash trash."

Wickman goes on to point out a number of errors: a Seminole war ending ten years too early, Osceola's home mislabeled as Silver Springs, a treaty that never happened attributed to the Seminoles and the Confederacy. But what most upsets Wickman -- the author of Osceola's Legacy, a book she wrote in the early '90s to help dispel the historical myths surrounding the legendary chieftain -- is that her book appears in Orlean's bibliography. "After four centuries of misinformation, the history of the Seminole people is being manipulated once again," says Wickman, who says her ire is not at all inspired by the fact the Seminole tribe pays her salary. "Readers might think she took her errors out of my book."

Browder's criticisms are equally harsh. He claims that Orlean packs all of the most interesting anecdotes about the Everglades into the tiny Fakahatchee Strand to give the area an exaggerated sense of eccentricity. "Whenever she finds anything dramatic or colorful, she claims it happened in the Fakahatchee," he says. Though most of the factual errors he attributes to Orlean can be written off as mere semantics, a few are legitimately questionable.

Orlean writes that 50 acres of the Everglades dries up every day, a fact disputed not only by Browder but by Everglades researchers as well. Fred Sklar with the Everglades Water Management District says no one has ever settled on a precise figure and that, though large portions of the Everglades are drier than they should be, other sections are in fact too wet. Fifty acres a day, he says, sounds like a substantial exaggeration.

She also writes that the elusive ghost orchid is exclusive in this country to the Fakahatchee Strand. Mike Owen, chief biologist at Fakahatchee, says that, while the orchids are native only to South Florida, they do appear throughout the Big Cypress Preserve that borders the Fakahatchee. Orlean, though, defends her description, stating that to her mind the boundary between the Fakahatchee and the Big Cypress is in fact "fluid."

Whatever the errors in the book, and there are a number of them, Orlean's reputation isn't likely to suffer as a result. The errors are scarcely lawsuit material, and her book continues to be generally well received by both readers and critics.

"I've got to give her credit," says Ned Nash. "She's sold a ton of books, and there's been a fabulous amount of buzz about it."

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Jay Cheshes