American crime writer Rex Stout (1886-1975) penned a series of books featuring the overweight and eccentric New York private detective Nero Wolfe, a dedicated orchid grower with 10,000 plants in growing rooms on the rooftop of his brownstone building. He visits the plants twice a day, 2 hours at a time, and employs a gardener.
By Rex Stout*
Wolfe’s flowers go all the way from the showiest to the shyest. He has a Cattleya hybrid, bred by him, which threw its first flower last year, that is twice as gaudy as anything you ever saw in a florist shop, and he has a Cymbidium hybrid, ensifolium x Sanderae, bred by him in 1953, so coy that it makes one little flower each year: off-white, the size of a dime, hidden down in the foliage. Once I saw him scowling at it and muttering, “Confound you, are you too timid or too proud?”
If he ever talks to himself he keeps it strictly private, but I have often heard him talk to orchids. He’ll cock his head at a bench of Miltonias in full bloom and say distinctly, “Much too loud. Why don’t you learn to whisper?” Not that he ever whispers.
Wolfe started on orchids many years ago with a specimen plant of Vanda suavis, given to him by the wife of a man he had cleared on a murder rap. He kept it in the office and it petered out. He got mad, built a little shed on the roof and bought 20 plants. Now the plant rooms are 34 feet x 86 feet, the size of the house. He hasn’t bought a plant from a commercial grower for 10 years, but he sells some – 100 or more a year.
Not much can get Wolfe to leave his home, but a rare black orchid lures him to a flower show (Black Orchids, 1942). Unfortunately, the event is overshadowed by a murder.
Of the four hours a day he spends up in the plant rooms – 9 to 11 in the morning and 4 to 6 in the afternoon – not more than 20 minutes is spent looking at flowers. First he makes a tour through the aisles, which are 30 inches wide instead of the usual two feet – the tropical room, the intermediate, and the cool – and then on to the potting room. He nods to Theodore, the gardener, and says, “Well?”. Theodore says either, “Well enough”, or something like, “A pod of Coelogyne will be ready in two days”.
Then work. It may be real work, like bringing a dozen old plants from one of the rooms for dividing and repotting, or opening a bale of osmunda fibre and inspecting it; or it may be merely getting a tape and going to the cool room to measure the panicles of Odontoglossums. It can be any of the thousand chores that orchids take – mixing fertiliser, labelling, presoaking new pots, checking ventilation and humidity, adjusting shade screens, stripping bulb sheaths, chipping charcoal, and so forth, forever and ever with no amen. Except spraying. Wolfe hates it, and Theodore does it when he’s not there.
Of course, most of the chores are for breeding, not growing. Buying a dozen or so orchid plants and keeping them going and blooming in a house or apartment is no trick at all, but hybridising is a career. Usually an orchid flower is both male and female, so deciding on father and mother is up to Nero Wolfe. Having cross-pollinated, he waits seven months to a year for the seed pod to mature and ripen. A large pod will have a million or more seeds. They are among the smallest of all plant seeds.
Despite the cover, the first Nero Wolfe mystery published in 1934 is centred on golf.
The preparations in a hospital operating room for an appendectomy are nothing compared to the fuss of planting a batch of orchid seed. What Wolfe has to keep out is fungus. If one microscopic fungus cell gets in a bottle with the seed, it goes to work on the nutrient jelly in which the infant flower is planted, and goodbye seed. If he does it right and is lucky, in nine or 10 months he scoops the tiny half-inch seedlings out of the bottle and plants them in community pots. A year later he transplants them to individual three-inch pots and in another two years to 4½-inch pots, and crosses his fingers. Then five or six or seven years since the day he put pollen to stigma, he sees an orchid no one ever saw before. It is different from any orchid that has ever bloomed, including those in the Garden of Eden. The differences may be very slight, or there may be flaws, but about once in every five times his orchid will be worthy of dad and mom, and there is one chance in 10,000 that it will be a absolute stunner. Since he has seen only a fraction of the many thousands of named and listed hybrids, he can’t be sure until the day some grower takes a long hard look at his baby and says casually, “Interesting little plant. I’ll give you $400 for it”. Then he’ll know that in a few years orchid catalogues will list one more named for him, or at least by him.
In the past 20 years Nero Wolfe has had that happen 14 times, and he has on his benches a total of 112 unnamed varieties bred by him and good enough to keep. Okay, that’s very satisfactory, and it’s one of the reasons he grow orchids; but it’s not the main one. He grows orchids chiefly for the same reason that he wears bright yellow shirts: for the colour.
The novella published in 1941 that the next year was extended and renamed Black Orchids.
I said he spends only 20 minutes of the 4 hours looking at flowers, but that’s a lot. Anyway he gets some special kind of kick from colour. He says you don’t look at colour, you feel it, and apparently he thinks that really means something.
It doesn’t to me, but maybe it does to you and you know exactly how he feels as he opens the door to the plant rooms and walks in on the big show. I have never known a day when less than a hundred plants were in bloom, and sometimes there are a thousand, from the pure white of dainty little Dendrobium nobile virginalis to the yellow-tan-bronze-mahogany-purple of big and gaudy Laelia tenebrosa. It is unquestionably worth a look – or, if you react the same way Wolfe does, a feel.
One question I don’t know the answer to and can only guess at is why he cuts the ones he brings down to the office every morning for the vase on his desk. Why not bring the plant, since then the flowers would be good for another week or more? Because he would have to take it back up again? No; he could just add that to my daily chores. Because he thinks that particular spike or raceme has been around long enough? No; sometimes it will be a very special item, like the dwarf Vanda with green dots that a commercial grower offered him $1,200 for. Because he hates to carry things? That could be, but he carries plenty of them from the growing rooms to the potting rooms and back again. The best guess is that he doesn’t want to give a plant a shadow of an excuse not to go on blossoming at peak efficiency. If a Zygopetalum has a cluster of eight flowers this year, and next year only six, he could blame it on the day in the office – not enough light and the temperature and humidity wrong; and although you can say pfui to an orchid plant, and Wolfe often does, there’s no real satisfaction in it.
How does he decide each morning which one he will cut for his desk vase that day? I have had various theories, but none of them has stood up. One was that it depended on the bank balance. If the balance was high, say 50 grand, he would pick something extra flashy; if it was low, down to four figures, it would be something subdued like a brown speckled Dendrobium. That theory lasted three days. When I told him about it he grunted and said, “The flower a woman chooses depends on the woman. The flower a man chooses depends on the flower.”
*This article was originally published in Life magazine on April 19, 1963 and is available online.
Published in 1949, The Second Confession sees a gangster try to intimidate Wolfe by shooting out the windows of his orchid rooms.
Wolfe had once remarked to me that the orchids were his concubines: insipid, expensive, parasitic and temperamental. He brought them, in their diverse forms and colours, to the limits of their perfection, and then gave them away; he had never sold one.
— Archie Goodwin in The League of Frightened Men (1935).
Entering from the stairs via a vestibule, there were three main rooms in the orchid house — one for cattleyas, laelias, and hybrids; one for odontoglossums, oncidiums, miltonias, and their hybrids; and a tropical room (according to Fer-de-Lance). It must have been quite a sight with the angle-iron staging gleaming in its silver paint and on the concrete benches and shelves 10,000 pots of orchids in glorious, exultant bloom.
— Dr John H Vandermeulen writing in the American Orchid Society Bulletin, February 1985, ‘Nero Wolfe — Orchidist Extraordinaire’.
The Father Hunt was published in 1968.
“If Wolfe had a favourite orchid, it would be the genus Phalaenopsis,” Robert M. Hamilton wrote in his article, ‘The Orchidology of Nero Wolfe’, first printed in The Gazette: Journal of the Wolfe Pack (Volume 1, Spring 1979). Phalaenopsis is mentioned in 11 Wolfe stories, and Phalaenopsis Aphrodite in seven — more than any other species. Wolfe personally cuts his most treasured Phalaenopsis Aphrodite for a dinner table centerpiece in Poison à la Carte (contained in a 1960 collection). In The Father Hunt (1968), after Dorothy Sebor provides information that solves the case, Wolfe tells Archie, “We’ll send her some sprays of Phalaenopsis Aphrodite. They have never been finer.”
Wolfe rarely sells his orchids — but he does give them away. Four or five dozen are used to advance the investigation in Murder by the Book (1951), and Wolfe refuses to let Archie bill the client for them. In The Final Deduction (1961), Laelia purpurata and Dendrobium chrysotoxum are sent to Dr Vollmer and his assistant, who shelter Wolfe and Archie when they have to flee the brownstone to avoid police.