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Cunning, killer orchids

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At the end of the nineteenth century, orchids were among the most desirable, collectable and exotic flowers to grace British greenhouses, but despite the hours spent watering and tending to them, they turned on their keepers and started trying to kill those who grew them. The first victim was a Mr Winter-Wedderburn, who almost died when a vampiric orchid tried to drain every drop of blood from his body; only his quick-thinking housekeeper’s intervention saved him. Others were not so lucky, and the list of fatalities grew slowly but steadily during the next few decades. Fortunately, these attacks only occurred in fiction (Mr Winter-Wedderburn was a character in a short story by H.G. Wells), yet they present a curious puzzle for historians. Orchids were to become deadly, sexy, mobile and – most noticeably – increasingly cunning over the next few decades. To understand why, we need to trace the ‘killer orchid’ genre back, via popularisations of Darwin’s botany, to a mystery that Darwin was unable to solve; why some orchids mimic insects. The solution was only found in the twentieth century, and I will argue that the fictitious orchids formed a crucial link in this discovery.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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