Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter O


Whitework O for orchid (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

We are taking not going out very seriously. My last day actually going anywhere was on Monday when I took 2 parcels to the local sub post office (one parcel of bedlinen for the family in London and the other with last week’s little Fair Isle jumper), relieved to be doing something constructive. Since then I try to run on the spot for a minute every hour which is possibly useless and pathetic and I aim do more hoovering – always necessary as our fluffy black cat trails loose fur everywhere. My husband, however, goes out every day for a walk or to shop and has odd random greetings with people he doesn’t know across the width of the road as fellow intrepid but rule following individuals shout cheery good mornings or offer random information about things like the fact that Marks and Spencers are empty but the shelves are full (Tuesday, not Wednesday).

Whitework O for orchid (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

The self isolators in London are coming to the end of their confinement and as yet no one else seems to have been made ill by whatever it was that the smallest person had. For a while household numbers were swollen by another relative who felt unwell and understandably very panicky on her own with just her two children. This was great for the small person as his cousins, who he loves to be with anyway, taught him how to play chess. It was, however, quite difficult for the family as self isolating means no helpful cleaner (or granny) to clean all those loos and clear up all the pots and pans. Meanwhile Daughter No 2 arrived back from Iraq, via time in Cambodia and had to spend her first night in a hotel and a the next few days with a friend elsewhere due her sister’s household’s battened down hatches. Since then, a kind neighbour, between tenants for the house next door and with no prospect of a new let for some time, has said daughter No 2 can live there. Daughter No 1 is tiger mothering the small person whose times tables already take in part of the 13 x table. Together they have also been working on Daughter No 1’s series of children’s stories involving a band of superheroes riding – and even turning – the tides of history. The small person regularly runs 4k with his mum at the same time as keeping up a detailed analysis of the books he’s currently reading/being read/writing, including plot intricacies (and deficiencies), character assessment and scene setting. “Don’t you think running and talking should be an Olympic sport mum?” On top of all that, 7 cats – 6 kittens, now half mum’s size, occupy the playroom, while kitten mum’s brother seeks maximum human comfort in all this confusion. In Cheltenham, I have now washed everything that needed washing (sofa arm caps, not yet the whole sofa covers – not warm enough) and feel it’s such a shame I can’t be more helpful to those in London.

Sketches for O for orchid

When Rosemary and Peter Williams came to discuss making my replacement wedding ring, they brought along with them a present of a little potted orchid, so O is for orchid in my whitework alphabet. We take these exotic flowers for granted now since clever people worked out how to propagate them cheaply and in their trillions and it’s easy to forget that not long ago they would have been seen only  rarely and then in specialist glass houses in horticultural gardens or in the conservatories of the more eccentric botanists. Very few would have seen them in the wild.

Susan Orlean “The Orchid Thief”

To get a feeling for the power of orchid love at a time before they became commonplace on garage forecourts, get a copy of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief (1998). The story began in 1994 when a group of Seminole native americans and a man called John Laroche were arrested for poaching rare orchids in the Fukahatchee Strand State Reserve in Florida. Susan Orlean was at first just interested in the crime but as she delved into what had happened she herself became fascinated to the point of obsession by orchids in general, by an orchid known as the ghost, in particular and by the unique individual John Laroche who lived a marginal life, running a plant nursery on the Seminole reservation near Miami. For two years she was Laroche’s shadow and dived into the swamps and the sub culture of orchid fanatics in equal measure. The New Yorker describes Orlean’s strange companion as a man, moral and immoral in equal measure, gripped by sequential natural history passions which “boil up quickly an end abruptly like tornadoes”. Laroche began orchid hunting in the swamps as a child with his mother and though other passions came and went, the orchid love rumbled on beneath, obsessing not on what he’d call corsage orchids but in the rare and endangered ones – the strange looking and often not even vaguely lovely ones. The ghost stood out for being the only pretty orchid in the swamp and as such it was hunted like a wild animal, compared to which it was equally elusive. Laroche knew where to find it but his main mission was to stamp out the illegal trade it engendered. The paradox was that in trying to protect the ghost, Laroche and the Seminoles were accused of poaching it. A film with title Adaptation of 2002 had Meryl Streep as Orlean and I have to say I didn’t care for it. Nor did Orlean to begin with although she later came to love it, especially in its depiction of obsession and in its rounding out of the book’s more subtle undertones of longing and disappointment. Perhaps I’ll watch it again. I’d like to read the book again too, but when the film came out, it contaminated the book for me and I sent it to charity.

Tom Hart Dyke & Paul Winder “The Cloud Garden”

A couple of years after Orlean’s book, the newspapers were full of another adventure involving orchid hunting. In 2000, plant hunter Tom Hart Dyke and his back packing companion, Paul Winder, were kidnapped by FARC guerrillas in the Darien Gap between Panama and  Colombia –  “waltzing round the jungle like a school trip gone wrong”.*

Tom had discovered orchids when he was nine and from there on he was hooked, “I tried to count every native orchid on the golf course near my home. Four days later, I finished. I had counted 63,424.” *

Held for 9 months they were threatened with death and British officials were said to have given them up for dead. Tom occupied his mind by designing a garden in the form of a map of the world which he hoped to live to see coming to fruition in the gardens of his family home, Lullingstone Castle in Kent. He even tried to make little gardens around his kidnap site in the mountains though this irritated his captors who could understand digging and even weeding but orchid growing was beyond them and they burnt his seeds.

No ransom demands were ever issued and the pair were released just before Christmas 2000. Their book The Cloud Garden was published in 2003. The garden Hart Dyke designed in the mountains was opened in 2005 with the planting of an Agave americana just above the Darien Gap (remember his garden was in the form of a world map). “I chose it (the agave) because Paul hates orchids,” says Hart Dyke. “And because it is the spiniest and prickliest of all the plants — which was a pain to plant.” *

We may be seeing more of our own garden walls and fences than we might wish, but we can always escape with a book that makes you happy to be at home.

Whitework O for orchid (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

(*All quotes from an article in the Sunday Times July 31 2005).


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  1. Posted March 27, 2020 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    We, too, have been taking it seriously. We go out for a walk each day, avoiding the few people we meet except for smiling at them, but other than that – it’s a matter of choosing which project to bury ourselves in…

    • Mary Addison
      Posted March 28, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      I hope i don’t get too used to this delightful isolation and become a hermit!

      • Posted April 4, 2020 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        My mother says she may do just that!

        • Mary Addison
          Posted April 5, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

          It’s very tempting.
          I’m sure it’s not easy for your mother with your father having died so recently. However, from your comments you seem to get on very well together and in that she is blessed and most fortunate.

  2. Posted April 1, 2020 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t it strange to think of orchids being so rare that you could be arrested for poaching them, when now there is a perpetual display at the local grocery store and you can buy as many as you like, for pennies.

    Your “O” is lovely — I especially like the way the lower petal breaks the border of the O.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted April 2, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Yes, it’s easy to forget how quickly they’ve become so easily available and really quite cheap.
      Thank you for letting me know you like the ‘O’.

  3. Nella Logan
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    I so look forward to reading your blog posts Mary. There’s your beautiful embroidery and knitting to admire; there are tales from your family life, some sad but usually heart-warming and then there’s the wealth of information about all sorts of wonderful things. Thank you so much for everything you write and photograph.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted April 2, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Such a kind comment Nella. It’s good to know you like the mix of things I put on the blog.
      Thank you.

  4. Rebecca
    Posted April 5, 2020 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Hello. I am using the time at home to catch up with various blogs, so enjoying catching up with you. I would like to recommend the Military Orchid by Jocelyn Brooke, similar obsession but with a more gentle and humorous approach. Bx

    • Mary Addison
      Posted April 5, 2020 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

      I shall have to have a look at that Rebecca, thank you.

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