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A Good Read

.....what's worth a look?

Reviews in this issue cover The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Growing a Butterfly Garden in South-east Queensland by Graham McDonald, The Flower Chain: the Early Discovery of Australian Plants by Jill, Duchess of Hamilton and Julia Bruce and Napoleon, the Empress and the Artist: the Story of Napoleon, Josephine's Garden at Malmaison, Redoute and the Australian Plants by Jill, Duchess of Hamilton.
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The Orchid Thief
Susan Orlean

Published by Vintage, Random House, London

Reviewed by Don Lawie

Anyone with the slightest interest in orchids will find this book enthralling. Those interested in human behaviour will be equally fascinated.

Susan Orlean didn't even like orchids but she was intrigued when she read about four men being in court for stealing rare orchids from a Florida swamp. They stood trial on the charge "that on December 21,1994, Laroche and his three Seminole (Indian) assistants had iliegaiiy removed more than two hundred rare orchid and bromelaid plants from the Fakahatchee".....They were accused of criminal possession of endangered species and of illegally removing plant life from state property."

The how and why of taking the orchids and the defence offered, while revealing much about Laroche, is paramount to the story and raises the same questions that are asked in Australia: Should rare and endangered species be "protected" in situ and allowed to die? (In Queensland the official answer is yes.) Shouid native peoples be allowed to do whatever they wish with anything, plant or animal, on their land? The decision in the Ghost Orchid Case, as it was called, is not disclosed till two thirds of the way through the story and shows that the Americans are no closer to satisfactorily solvinq that situation than we are.

The Orchid Thief is not fiction. The facts, distilled from four years of research into why people, mostly men, become obsessed with orchids, are presented imaginatively and with enough detail to satisfy the reader who knows a bit more than the basics. The Latin is used as well as the commmon name so that plants can be properly identified. Whiie Florida orchids and collectors are the main focus, we learn that this obsession is worldwide and has been well documented over the past 150 years. There is even a report of a warning in the British Herbal Guide of 1653 that orchids should be used with discretion.

The exploits of the early collectors, mostly employees, are hardly believable. Some lost their lives, the names of many are not recorded, and the honour and glory all went to the men who paid them. In 1894 one of the best known orchid growers in England, Frederick Sander, had twenty-three hunters collecting for him around the world.

The history of the development of this part of Florida with names like The Everglades, the Fakahatchee Strand, Okaloacoochee Slough and the Caloosahatchee River excites comparisons with Australia and our management of land, people, plants and animals and our arrogant efforts to control nature.

Laroche questions whether the author will fall under the orchid's spell, and as the collectors, their behaviour and their collections are analysed it is obvious that the research has been conducted with the same singie-minded obsessiveness required to be a dedicated orchid collector. Says Orlean: "I don't even especially like orchids. What I wanted was to see this thing that people were drawn to in such a singular and powerful way." Has she seen it? Will she continue the search? Which orchid do you most want to see/own?

Reprinted from the September 2000 issue of the newsletter of ASGAP's Orchid Study Group.

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Growing a Butterfly Garden in South-east Queensland
Graham J McDonald


Reviewed by Bonnie Reichelt

Most books on butterflies focus on identification of the insects rather than on the plants which are essential for their survival. This book specifically addresses the practical aspects of creating a plant community which will attract these beautiful creatures and allow them to breed. Growing A Butterfly Garden in Southeast Queensland is a comprehensive guide in this part of the world.

For novices, the book reviews the basic life cycle and needs of the butterfly larvae and adults. All the essential elements for successfully establishing the plant community are given in chapters 2 to 5. An interesting case history of the recovery program for the Richmond Birding is given in chapter 6. Chapter 7 lists the butterfly food plants according to their natural plant communities (sub-tropical rainforest, open forest on clay soils, open forest on sandy soils, riparian communities, wetlands). Chapter 8 is a comprehensive guide to which food plants are required for each species of butterfly and includes many beautiful line drawings by the author.

Other useful appendices include alphabetical lists of all the food plants, common names of the bunerflies and a list of nurseries where the public can seek these plants.

This is a "must-have" book for anyone who has been enthralled by the beauty of butterflies and wishes to creatc a habitat to ensure their survival. If sufficient numbers of us do so, then we can hope that future generations may also enjoy the pleasure of sharing their world with such exauisite creatures.

Reprinted from the June 1998 issue of SGAP Queensland's Bulletin.

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The Flower Chain: the Early Discovery of Australian Plants
Jill, Duchess of Hamilton and Julia Bruce

Published by Kangaroo Press, 1998
160 pages, illus., some coloured, bibliography and index. AUS$45.00


Napoleon, the Empress and the Artist: the Story of Napoleon, Josephine's Garden at Malmaison, Redoute and the Australian Plants
Jill, Duchess of Hamilton

Published by Kangaroo Press, 1998
244 pages, illus., many coloured, bibliography and index. AUS$68.00

Reviewed by Tony Cavanagh

These two books are great examples of high quality Australian-produced works are a delight to read, or just to browse. The author, Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, is a former Australian journalist who has spent many years abroad where she formed an enduring fascination with conservation through horticulture. In 1994, she founded Flora-for-Fauna, a charity devoted to growing garden plants to help Britain's wildlife.

During her time in France, she began writing on Napoleon's family and discovered the unexpected link between Napoleon and his great interest in the arts, sciences, and Australian flora and fauna. She has also made available to English readers for the first time, information on the role the French played in describing and promoting our flora and fauna. In Napoleon, the Empress and the Artist, for example, she has chosen around 90 pictures by the great French botanical artist P.J. Redoute (better known as a painter of roses), the largest number of Redoute paintings of Australian plants ever included in one book. Her contention is that while the British collected many plants in Australia and even grew hundreds of them in glasshouses, they did nothing to describe and promote these plants. The French, however, thanks largely to the patronage of Napoleon and his wife Josephine, produced ten major volumes between 1790 and 1833 in which over 400 Australian plants were described and illustrated.

In The Flower Chain, the author pieces together the history of the European discovery of Australian plants. Several introductory chapters cover the development of botanic gardens, the role of plant collectors, the development of classification systems and the evolution and adaption of our flora to fire, climate and soils. Subsequent chapters deal with the explorations of the Dutch, Dampier, Cook, Banks and Solander, and Spanish, French and Russian expeditions, and finish with the exploration of Matthew Flinders. Other chapters deal with Banks' role in the settlement of Australia and the introduction of plants to cultivation in Europe. Ours is truly a fascinating botanical history, well told by Jill Hamilton in an easy style backed with excellent illustrations. The number and variety of Australian plants which were grown in England in these early years is staggering, over 170 new species by 1800, yet around 100 were also lovingly cared for by Josephine Bonaparte in her estate at Malmaison, outside of Paris. Why this French interest in Australian plants?

It would indeed be far-fetched to suggest that Napoleon was primarily responsible. But it was certainly his interest in science and his promotion of it that saw French science pre-eminent after the Revolution. At 15, he had applied to join the La Perouse expedition as an assistant astronomer but was not accepted; this reached Port Jackson just after the First Fleet. He was a member of the Mathematical and Physical Class of the Institut National and knew most of the important botanists and natural historians of the period. But perhaps most of all, his interest in science was the spark that ignited Josephine's passion for natural history and led her to develop one of the most famous gardens in Europe, Malmaison. Here, black swans, emus and kangaroos roamed freely and the gardener Delahaye who had voyaged to Australia, tended her thousands of exotic plants. The famous voyages of D'Entrecasteau and Baudin led to major collections of Australian flora and fauna, as well as seeds and living plants, and substantial published works naming and describing them resulted. For instance, on the Baudin expedition, there were 25 scientists including three botanists and five gardeners. The eucalypt, the emu, the wombat and the platypus were all described by French scientists and many hundreds of Australian plants named; many species were grown in France before they were cultivated in Britain. And it was the Bonaparte's patronage of Redoute which allowed him to produce some of the most beautiful paintings of Australian plants ever seen, many of them illustrated in these two books.

Jill Hamilton's text is engaging and packed with fascinating information about a facet of the history of the Australian flora that few of us know. The books are enhanced by superb illustrations and contain detailed bibliographies and a listing of the ten major books published in France between 1789 and 1833 with the number of Australian plants contained in each. I highly recommend both. Perhaps my only criticism is that I don't believe she has given sufficient credit to English Botanic Gardens and private nurserymen for introducing Australian plants to cultivation. Also, she plays down the role of the English nursery of Lee and Kennedy in providing plants to Malmaison, even during the Napoleonic wars. The British horticultural magazines of the period also featured illustrations of recently introduced plants so that her statement on the ABC Radio programme Ocram's Razor of November 14, 1999 "more illustrations of the Australian flora were published in Paris during the 16 years of the Napoleonic era than in the 90 years in Britain after Captain Cook's discovery of the east coast of Australia in 1770" needs to be treated with caution. Over 1200 Australian plants were grown in Britain during this period and perhaps three quarters were illustrated in horticultural magazines. They may not have been as good as Redoute's perhaps but nevertheless indicate that interest in Australian plants was just as alive in Britain as in France.

Reprinted from the December 2000 issue of Growing Australian, newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria).


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Australian Plants online - March 2001
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants