The best books about orchid history and culture

Who am I?

I wrote Orchid Muse: A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers. I’m a historian, a master gardener, and I’ve grown a few hundred orchids for over half my life. I love collecting stories of orchids because, well, they’re fascinating, and they offer a deeper connection to the pastime I love best.


I wrote...

Orchid Muse: A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers

By Erica Hannickel,

Book cover of Orchid Muse: A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers

What is my book about?

A kaleidoscopic journey into the world of nature’s most tantalizing flower, and the lives it has inspired.

The epitome of floral beauty, orchids have long fostered works of art, tales of adventure, and scientific discovery. Tenacious plant hunters have traversed continents to collect rare specimens; naturalists and shoguns have marveled at orchids’ seductive architecture; royalty and the smart set have adorned themselves with their allure. In Orchid Muse, historian and home grower Erica Hannickel gathers these bold tales of the orchid-smitten throughout history, while providing tips on cultivating the extraordinary flowers she features.

The books I picked & why

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Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

By Tim Ecott,

Book cover of Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

Why this book?

What a thoughtful, mysterious, magical, dark, and satisfying book. A great mix of history and travel memoir. Ecott details the deep myths circulating around vanilla and orchids in general over the past few centuries. He performed amazing on-the-ground research on the island of Reunion (off the coast of Madagascar), piecing together the real history of the first person to hand-pollinate the vanilla orchid, an enslaved boy named Edmund Albius. I found his story both soul-wrenching and an index to the possible lives of enslaved people we have no record of.

Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

By Tim Ecott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Vanilla as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Papantla in Mexico-"the city that perfumed the world"-to the Indian Ocean islands, Vanilla traces the story of the vanilla plant and its secretive trade. From the golden cups of Aztec emperors to the ice-cream dishes of U.S. presidents, Vanilla has mystified and tantalized man for centuries. The only orchid that produces an agriculturally valuable crop, vanilla can mask unpleasant tastes and smells, but also makes pleasant tastes stronger, smoother, and longer lasting. Because it has over four hundred separate flavor components, choosing premium vanilla beans is as complex as judging the aroma and taste of fine wine. Vanilla finds…


A Thing in Disguise : The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton

By Kate Colquhoun,

Book cover of A Thing in Disguise : The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton

Why this book?

Well, thank god this book exists. It fills a huge gap—Joseph Paxton, an English architect, gardener, and engineer, as well as a lover of orchids—was everywhere, doing everything, in the 19th century United Kingdom! He built London’s Crystal Palace (cementing it as the first and possibly most grand World’s Fair in history) as well as directed all activities at Chatsworth (home to one of the world’s largest orchid collections in its time). The book shows us once again that the rich and powerful were not in complete control of the subtropical orchid trade—it took visionaries like Paxton to make them grow successfully in cold locations. I loved getting to know Paxton, his environs, and his relationships with all the well-known horticulturists and botanists of his age.

A Thing in Disguise : The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton

By Kate Colquhoun,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Thing in Disguise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a biography of Joseph Paxton, horticulturist to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, architect of the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and a great unsung hero of the Victorian Age. In the 19th century, which witnessed a revolution in horticulture and urban planning and architecture, Joseph Paxton, a man with no formal education, strode like a colossus. Head gardener at Chatsworth by the age of 23 and encouraged by the sixth Duke of Devonshire, whose patronage soon flourished into the defining friendship of his life, Paxton set about transforming this Derbyshire estate into the greatest…


Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy

By Eric Hansen,

Book cover of Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy

Why this book?

Hanson’s book is a wild ride. Look here to learn a lot about the global orchid trade and environmental politics of orchid collecting. Just one unforgettable quote in the book: "You can get off alcohol, drugs, women, food, and cars, but once you're hooked on orchids, you're finished. You never get off orchids...never." – Hansen quoting Joe Kunisch, commercial orchid grower in New York.

I read this during a particularly difficult time in my life and am still thankful for its ability to transport me into strange and beautiful places.

Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy

By Eric Hansen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Orchid Fever as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The acclaimed author of Motoring with Mohammed brings us a compelling adventure into the remarkable world of the orchid and the impossibly bizarre array of international characters who dedicte their lives to it.

The orchid is used for everything from medicine for elephants to an aphrodisiac ice cream. A Malaysian species can grow to weigh half a ton while a South American species fires miniature pollen darts at nectar-sucking bees. But the orchid is also the center of an illicit international business: one grower in Santa Barbara tends his plants while toting an Uzi, and a former collector has been…


Orchid: A Cultural History

By Jim Endersby,

Book cover of Orchid: A Cultural History

Why this book?

A truly great addition to orchid history by a great master of botanical history at large. Endersby sets orchid culture in all of its larger historical contexts and adds intrigue and flare by following orchid fiction through the ages. It’s funny to boot! I'll be referring back to this book for years to come.

Orchid: A Cultural History

By Jim Endersby,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Orchid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At once delicate, exotic, and elegant, orchids are beloved for their singular, instantly recognizable beauty. Found in nearly every climate, the many species of orchid have carried symbolic weight in countless cultures over time. The ancient Greeks associated them with fertility and thought that parents who ingested orchid root tubers could control the sex of their child. During the Victorian era, orchids became deeply associated with romance and seduction. And in twentieth-century hard-boiled detective stories, they transformed into symbols of decadence, secrecy, and cunning. What is it about the orchid that has enthralled the imagination for so many centuries? And…


The Language of Flowers: A Fully Illustrated Compendium of Meaning, Literature, and Lore for the Modern Romantic

By Odessa Begay,

Book cover of The Language of Flowers: A Fully Illustrated Compendium of Meaning, Literature, and Lore for the Modern Romantic

Why this book?

This book stands out from the pack of flower symbolism and history. Instead of a slew of garbage collected from hither and yon on the internet, Begay deeply researched every flower and came to decisive yet elegant histories and meanings for every plant—the chapter on orchids is great. The book is useful for any reader, historian, or gardener who wants to infuse their garden and home with meaning, and the illustrations are whimsical and beautiful.

The Language of Flowers: A Fully Illustrated Compendium of Meaning, Literature, and Lore for the Modern Romantic

By Odessa Begay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Language of Flowers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With gorgeous full-color illustrations, ornate decorative elements, lettering in metallic ink, and engaging text, The Language of Flowers: A Fully Illustrated Compendium of Meaning, Literature, and Lore for the Modern Romantic is a treasure for flower lovers. A sumptuous, contemporary anthology of 50 of the world's most storied and popular flowers, each of its entries offers insight to the meaning associated with the flower, and is a fascinating mix of foklore, classic mythology, literature, botanical information and popular culture.

Following an introduction that provides a short history of the language of flowers, a fad which reached its peak during the…


4 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in flowers, horticulture, and gardening?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Orchid Modern, In the Event of Love, and Frederick Law Olmsted if you like this list.