A FLOWERING orchid is the perfect winter house plant.
Unsurpassed in diversity of form, colour and scent, orchids are easily grown indoors and are just the thing for when all's quiet on the garden front.
Orchids first pop up in western literature in the 4th century BC, in Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus's Enquiry into Plants, where they were later subjected to a surprising piece of censorship.
In 1916 the appropriately named Sir Arthur Hort translated Theophrastus' botanical treatise into English for the Loeb Classical Library series of ancient Greek and Latin texts.
Because these books were widely read in schools early editors often omitted a word or phrase considered unsuitable for young minds.
Almost unbelievably, the severest omission was suffered by Theophrastus: an entire section, on aphrodisiacs and sexual drugs, was deleted.
As it appeared in a chapter than included detailed references to deadly plants like hemlock, strychnine and opium poppies, sex was clearly the culprit.
In my 1966 reprint nothing has changed: Orchid appears in the index but to my serious disappointment, not the text.
Since making this discovery I've regarded the modest little cymbidium flowering on my desk with new respect.
Sir Peter Smithers, author of Adventures of a Gardener (1995) was a passionate plant hunter who loved orchids.
During World War 2 he was Naval Attache to Mexico, Central America and Panama, travelling regularly through some of the world's richest flora, from sea level jungles to cloud forests and cactus deserts.
It was plant lovers' paradise that contained a serpent: on one spectacularly beautiful trip he couldn't resist a flowering Schomburgkia orchid, only to discover on the long return drive that it was symbiotic with a large, aggressive ant that inhabited the pseudobulbs.
Being attacked by a hoard of furious ants, however, was a doddle compared to the fate of botanist Tom Hart Dyke and traveller Paul Winder, after they met in this part of the world in 2000.
Tom had been an orchidmaniac since aged nine - discovering a new species reduced him to jelly - and had saved enough to travel round the world hunting orchids by age 23.
Paul was a besotted traveller working in a London bank, who loved mountaineering and exploring jungles.
He was anxious to cross the Darien Gap; Tom, flushed and tingling at the thought of undiscovered rare orchids, jumped at the chance of joining him.
Darien is a mountainous Panamanian province then occupied by gangs of armed and dangerous revolutionary guerrillas: Don't even think about it, said Lonely Planet.
Their walk was planned to take six days.
It took nine months.
Ttheir book, The Cloud Garden (2003) describes how within hours of reaching Colombia they had the terrifying experience of being ambushed by armed guerrillas, marched endlessly through swampy, tropical jungle and regularly threatened with death.
Luckily they were eventually released unharmed, returning safely to their families in time for Christmas.
There's much more to an orchid than meets the eye.
Garden centres carry a range of flowering orchids now. Prices range from about $10 to $60 for a flowering stem.
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