Sleuthing PETER FROST is aided by Nero Wolfe in his quest to discover how an aristocrat of plant life became a much admired commoner.
My second most favourite detective writer is Rex Stout — the favourite of all is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle — but Stout’s sleuth Nero Wolfe and his Dr Watson-like assistant Archie Goodwin win a place in my heart for several good reasons.
First, J Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, thought Rex Stout a communist and tried to ban his books.
Second, detective Wolfe was a gourmet. Most of the stories have him enjoying and sometimes cooking some delicious exotic delicacies. Shad roe is a favourite first course, followed by roasted duck.
In 1973 Stout published the Nero Wolfe Cookbook. All recipes are prefaced with a brief excerpt from the book or story that made reference to that particular dish.
Last but not least Wolfe is far more interested in his rooftop glasshouse with its collection of rare and expensive orchids than he ever is in the minutiae of any actual case.
Stout wrote 33 Wolfe novels and 39 short stories from 1934 to 1975, with most of them set in New York City. Many radio, television and film adaptations have been made from these stories.
The books tell us that Wolfe spends four hours a day with his orchids and they much as the orchid rooms are sometimes the focal points in the stories.
If Wolfe had a favourite orchid, it would be the genus Phalaenopsis.
As you read these wonderful whodunnits, along the way, you learn quite a lot about orchidaceae as the orchid family is known. The detective tells his assistant Archie that this is the largest flowering plant family on earth with about 30,000 species.
It is also one of the oldest plant families — developing about 84 million years ago. Being so old, orchids have had plenty of time to develop into very specialised organisms. They fascinated Charles Darwin (below), who studied the orchid flowers and their relationship with particular insects.
Their pollen is very primitive — a fine dust that comes in packets and cannot float freely through the air. Darwin discovered each orchid is entirely dependent on a specific insect pollinator — and over their aeons of development, they have modified their flowers to trick a wide variety of insects into transporting their pollen from one flower to another.
These complicated sex lives meant that trying to artificially breed orchids was slow, difficult and very expensive.
Collecting them became a hobby only for the very rich indeed. Intrepid explorers scoured the jungles of the world looking for unique species that might swap hand for thousands of pounds.
Today anyone with a few pounds can buy a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid. Meristem propagation has made that possible. This is a laboratory technique to mass-produce clones of any particular orchid. Commercial orchid breeders cut a meristem — a clump of undifferentiated, rapidly dividing cells — from the growth tip from the orchid.
The growing tip is put in a flask of nutrient and is constantly agitated so the cell is never sure which way up it is. It divides into thousands of cells but these don’t know which bits should become leaves or which roots. Without light or gravity they can only divide into a mass of cells.
The growing ball of tissue is periodically cut up so that it never forms a large enough clump for the tissue to differentiate and develop into a plant.
After splitting the cloned tissue many times, finally the numerous individual dividing cells are allowed to grow and mature into tiny orchid plants identical to the donor plant. These are then potted on normally and grown to maturity.
This means that the horticultural industry can produce millions of phalaenopsis, cymbidium, dendrobium and other of what were once rare and expensive plants.
This has meant that today orchids have become the most popular house plants and some of the least expensive in Britain.
Here are a few tips for caring for yours. If looked after well they will produce flowers year after year.
The most common pot-plant orchid is Wolfe’s favourite too, the phalaenopsis. It enjoys typical living room conditions. It needs a warm, draught-free room, plenty of diffused daylight, occasional feeds and regular but not excessive watering.
In the wild phalaenopsis orchids grow in the forks of trees or in cracks in rocks.
It doesn’t grow in soil, but bark, moss and debris gathered around its spidery roots. This means the biggest mistake most people make with orchids is to over-water them. They can cope with extended dry periods, but will not tolerate having their roots in the wet.
When the flowers finally die, cut the old stem above a dormant lower bud, and a new flower spike will usually grow. Do not be in a hurry to re-pot your orchid too soon. If you are in any doubt do nothing. When the roots are pushing it out of the container it may be time to think about a bigger pot. Always wait until it has finished flowering.
Use specialist orchid compost from your local garden centre — never ordinary soil.
Remove the plant from its old pot, shake most of the compost out of the roots. Trim over-long roots back, leaving at least four inches of each still attached. Remove shrivelled roots or dead leaves.
Any larger container will do, as long as it’s free-draining. Water your orchid every 10 to 14 days and feed it on every third watering with garden centre orchid food.
For the first week or so after potting, moisten the compost surface with an atomiser spray daily, to stimulate root growth.
First published in the Morning Star 12 February 2016.