Orchids of the Andamans

How a writer with a black thumb can write about medicinal botany in the Far East

Credits: Author’s Photos and Craig Whitehead (Unsplash)

The job of the novelist is to create a fictional world so convincing that the reader will suspend their natural disbelief and “buy” the characters and their passions and fears, as well as their areas of expertise. To an extent, that means that the writer must adopt those same passions. When I was writing my novel Glorious Boy, I had to immerse myself in vocations ranging from anthropology to World War II espionage. But one of the biggest challenges for me as a lifelong non-gardener (as in: I don’t grow plants, I kill them) was my character Shep’s eager study of medicinal orchids of the Andaman Islands.

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These wild islands had fascinated me ever since I first learned about them from an anthropologist friend more than twenty years ago. Located in the Bay of Bengal some 300 miles off the coast of Burma, this heavily forested archipelago was home to indigenous tribes who first arrived from Africa 16,000 years ago. The Andaman Islanders were studied by another anthropologist, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown in the early 1900s.

The tragedy of the Andamanese, who flourished in isolation but began to die out after the British started to colonize the islands in the 1800s, called me to this setting. My central protagonist, Claire Durant, was a wannabe Margaret Mead. Her husband Shep, however, needed a different lure to pull him into the tropical forest. As I read about the indigenous people’s mastery of botanical medicine, I saw this as his natural attraction.

But Radcliffe-Brown’s prose was dry going. I needed other sources to provide the sensory details and excitement of an orchid hunt. Further, I wanted a sense of orchid-hunting around the 1930s, when my novel begins. Fortunately, H.G. Wells had written a wild and woolly tale called “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” which gave me a hint of the adventure that the Andaman orchids might represent for a man like Shep.

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I wonder how it feels to have something happen to you, something really remarkable. “That orchid-collector was only thirty-six — twenty years younger than myself — when he died. And he had been married twice and divorced once; he had had malarial fever four times, and once he broke his thigh. He killed
a Malay once, and once he was wounded by a poisoned dart. And in the end he was killed by jungle-leeches. It must have all been very troublesome, but then it must have been very interesting, you know — except, perhaps, the leeches.”

The leeches would most definitely make an appearance in my novel!

Then, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief was published. The setting wasn’t the Andamans, but this extraordinary memoir gave me exactly the botanical crash course I needed. Here were explanations not only of the eccentricities of orchids and the characters who hunt them, but also of the history and thrill of discovering them in the wild.

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Orlean’s adventures with an orchid hunter in the Florida swamps gave me the visceral details I needed to imagine Shep’s first glimpses of his quarry deep in the rain forest:

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Gradually, as their eyes adjusted to the viscous light, they began to spot the orchids high in the branches or clinging to trunks, trailing plumes or shooting small explosions of color… he managed to identify even from afar the basic contours of lady’s slippers, Dendrobium, giant Vanda, and the delicate winged grace of Phalaenopsis. But these were altogether different species from those that grew near the port. Some blooms here were the size of helmets. Some transparent as ghosts. A few moved as if breathing, though eventually they realized this was because the stems were covered with ants. Some, even at a distance of several yards, gave off powerful fragrances or stinks. And many, suspended from their host trees by nearly invisible threads, appeared to float in mid-air.

What continued to elude me were the exact particulars of the process of hunting orchids in these islands before there were modern conveniences or equipment to transport them, back when tensions between the white interlopers and indigenous people still ran high, and white explorers still depended on colonized subjects for guidance and manpower. To my absolute delight, the web responded with a reprint of a memoir first published in 1911 titled Pilgrims to the Isles of Penance by Violet Mary Beauclerk Clifton, an extraordinary woman who accompanied her explorer husband around the world, including on an orchid gathering expedition to the Andaman Islands.

Clifton helped me navigate the boats and terrain my characters would need. She walked me through the bigotries and resentments that dominated interactions between the races under colonialism. And she drew me into the personal thrill of the orchid hunt.

It was Clifton’s book that allowed me to make my fictional trek into the Andaman forest and share Shep’s ecstasy upon retrieving his giant prize:

…we discovered a giant Grammatophyllum speciosum in the crotch of an ancient marblewood tree. This particular orchid is not only rare and enormous, but the aboriginals use it as a cure for scorpion and centipede poisoning. It blooms only once every two years, and this one was covered with spears of beautiful leopard-spotted blossoms! The whole thing must have weighed over a ton, but we managed to wrestle off a single root bundle that we could hoist between the three of us.

Writing about the orchids of the Andamans hasn’t made me a better gardener, but it made Glorious Boy a richer and more surprising story. It has also made me a passionate vicarious orchid hunter for life.

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Grammatophyllum speciosum @WikiCommons

Written by

Aimee Liu is the bestselling author of the novels Glorious Boy, Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face and memoirs Gaining and Solitaire. More@ aimeeliu.net

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