Magazine article The Spectator

'The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist's Search for Happiness', by Leif Bersweden - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist's Search for Happiness', by Leif Bersweden - Review

Article excerpt

Who would want to read a whole book about a teenage boy's gap year? When most 18-year-olds take time off before university, they either head for Thailand to experience middle-class Western culture in warmer climes with more drugs, or spend six months shelf-stacking and six months 'finding themselves' at a Ugandan orphanage. A tedious evening in the pub during freshers' week when all the gap year students bore one another into submission about how much better Mexico made them is normally enough. Leif Bersweden thought so much of his year off, though, that he wrote 360 pages about it.

But the difference between most gap years and the one that Bersweden describes in The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist's Search for Happiness is that this teenager wasn't trying to find himself but all 52 species of native orchid that flower in the British Isles. Most staid grown-ups are unaware there are so many orchids popping up in woodlands and sand dunes all around them, let alone teenagers whose definition of a 'wild' afternoon normally involves a muddy field at a music festival, not hunting through soggy peat for a pale green flowering spike of Hammarbya paludosa, the bog orchid. But Bersweden has been obsessed with orchids ever since, aged seven, he came across a 'flower that looks just like a bee'.

That bee orchid, Ophrys apifera, has a sex life far beyond the dreams of most teenage boys. The Orchid Hunter reveals the naughtiness of many orchids in tricking insects into thinking their flowers are in fact alluring females, often before the female insects have actually hatched. A randy bee comes across something that looks, smells and even feels like a lovely lady, and so he goes for it:

Excited by this, he alights and attempts to mate with the 'female', often vigorously and for prolonged periods. During these fruitless exertions, the bee knocks into the column-- the reproductive structure consisting of both male and female parts -- which drops two tiny, sticky pollen sacs on to the bee's back. Eventually, he gets frustrated by the lack of action and buzzes off in search of a more enthusiastic partner.

Bersweden finds the bee orchid's relatives, the fly and the early spider orchid, both of which also rely on horny insects for their own sex lives to work.

As a coming-of-age book, this has all the sex you'd expect: it's just that it's between the often tiny plants that Bersweden is hunting. …

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