Q) I first learned about orchids from reading Nero Wolfe detective books. What can you tell me about his collection? Adam S
A) Many orchid enthusiasts cite the fictional Nero Wolfe as one of their earliest inspirations. There were 33 novels written between 1934 and 1975 by author Rex Stout and orchids were integral to many of the plots. The stories took place predominantly in New York City at Wolfe’s brownstone residence on West 35th Street in which the top floor was a large greenhouse with three temperature zones and 10,000 orchids!
Stouts first novel, Fer-de-Lance (a poisonous tropical snake), made reference to 15 different orchids - many of which were noted by their complete botanical name. For example, specimens of early hybrids Cymbidium Alexanderi (circa 1911) and Laeliocattleya Lustre (circa 1907) as well as naturally occurring species Angraecum sesquipedale (from Madagascar) and Cattleya dowiana aurea (from Colombia) are mentioned.
Each day, the eccentric Wolfe would cut a spray of orchids from his greenhouse, place it in a vase on his desk, then go about solving a crime. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, narrates each case and is often frustrated by the rigid schedule and seemingly excessive time that Wolfe keeps while tending to the massive collection. The brilliant sleuth would spend four hours each day (9am-11am) and (4pm-6pm) in the ‘plant room’ often keeping crime witnesses and law enforcement officials waiting.
Wolfe’s interest in orchids went far beyond merely admiring them. He created many new hybrids, sowing the seeds himself, and transplanting the tiny plantlets into community pots. “The preparation in a hospital operating room for an appendectomy is nothing compared to the fuss of planting a batch of orchid seed” Stout wrote in a 1963 article for Life Magazine entitled “Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids”. He continues “Buying a dozen or so orchid plants and keeping them going and blooming in a house or apartment is no trick at all, but hybridizing is a career”.
The fictional detective grew orchid species and hybrids of all types, not just the popular ones. Phalaenopsis aphrodite, a cute white miniature from the Philippines, is mentioned more than any other. This species stays in blooms for three months and is one of the building blocks in today’s compact hybrids.
In other books within the series, species of common genera Dendrobium, Miltonia, Oncidium, Paphiopedilum, and Vanda play a role. Still other novels contain obscure genera such as Calanthe, Cochlioda, Coelogyne, Laelia, Lycaste, Odontoglossom, Renanthera, and Zygopetalum. Readers would have to do a little detective work themselves to fully grasp these horticultural idiosyncrasies!
Due to the age of the literature, there are many references to orchid hybrids that are over a century old. The author died in 1975 (at age 88) but many of his novels can still be found and are fascinating reading for both detective buffs and orchid hobbyists alike.