Book Review: Aphid in My Eye – Adventures in the Orchid Trade

By Tom Powell. 2012. B.B. Mackey Books, Wayne. Softcover, 146 pages, black-and-white illustrations by Betsy West, color cover.

Veteran garden writer Tom Powell (The Avant Gardener newsletter) has written a gently humorous memoir of his early years in the mom-and-pop orchid business, back when people really joined societies and plants could still legally be collected from the wild. Aphid in My Eye recounts the foibles and follies of a young couple (author Tom and his late wife Betty) who become so enamored of orchids that they abandon urban New York living and move to a ramshackle farm. There they live and work for an orchid grower who was "a hybrid of Gandhi and an emaciated Jimmy Stewart" with "a prodigious knowledge of orchids and a tale to go with every plant." But this is no roman a clef novel. Powell does not name names, or come even close. Rather, he has strewn facetious monikers throughout his pages, with an affinity for the letter "B": Birst & Borpling Orchids; Roger Burlbutt; Herr Buksoom; Dr. Bobbins.

The characters are very broadly drawn yet depict types familiar to orchidistas. A certain Mrs. Birdee, who wants extravagant arrangements at bargain basement rates; a shady plan to corner the Mexican osmunda tree fern market through a crooked broker named Raoul; and...the customers. "Orchid shoppers...could be classified just like orchids." There is the budgeter species who has set a limit of $2 (editor note: remember, this is the 1950s) on his purchase...(Another) species always knows exactly what it wants. It walks you briskly through six greenhouses — twice. Halfway through the third trip, it finds itself unable to make a decision and decides to come back later. The trouble is, it always does. Most apt to provoke biliousness was the know-it-all. One team admonished me constantly, "You’re growing these plants a tad too dry — you’re giving them 15 percent shade when they need 18 percent!"

The best part of this rated-very-G booklet is Powell’s take on the "big regional orchid society" or Metropolitan Northern Tier Orchid Society (MNTOS). Anyone who has ever associated with the Byzantine politics and fiefdoms of not-for-profit plant groups knows what he means. Powell describes the official and unofficial society leaders as the brotherhood of the pseudobulb and oh-so-kindly portrays the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of those more delicate times. What an experience the Powells must have had, before the orchid world was subsumed by big-box stores and mass marketing! Reading Aphid in My Eye is sort of like fondly watching a rerun of "Leave It To Beaver," and wishing for the good old days.

Sue Volek has been growing orchids as a hobby for more than 15 years, in San Diego, Washington, DC, and now Portland. She is on the board of the Oregon Orchid Society, is an AOS affiliate, and has been an AOS member for more than 15 years.