from Life magazine dated 15 SEP 1963

Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids
by Rex Stout

When people ask me why Nero Wolfe grows orchids I ask them which they are interested in, orchids or him. If they ask what difference that makes, I say it makes all the difference. If they are curious about orchids, the best and simplest answer is to take them up to the plant rooms, but if they're curious about Nero Wolfe, there are a dozen different answers and they are all complicated.

Wolfe's flowers go all they way from the showiest to the shyest. He has a Cattleya hybrid, bred by him, which threw it's 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 34x86, the size of the house. He hasn't bought a plant from a commercial grower for 10 years, but he sells some --- a hundred or more a year.

Of the four hours a day he spends up in the plants 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 fiber 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 fertilizer, labeling, 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 hybridizing 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-pollenated, 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.

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 ten thousand 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 color.

I said he spends only 20 minutes of the four hours looking at flowers, but that's a lot. Anyway he gets some special kind of kick from color. He says you don't look at color, 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, it 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."