‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), first published in the Pall Mall Budget on 2 August 1894. In some ways a forerunner to later narratives like Little Shop of Horrors, the story is an unsettling tale about a parasitical species of plant which feeds upon the blood of a man who collects orchids.
Perhaps a brief plot summary would be a wise place to begin.
‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ is about Winter-Wedderburn, a shy, lonely, and rather feeble man who collects orchids. One day, he announces to his housekeeper that he has a feeling something is going to happen to him on that day. This is unusual, because normally nothing ever happens to him. He tells his housekeeper (who is also his cousin) about a fellow orchid-collector who led an exciting life and was killed by jungle-leeches (at least, so Wedderburn supposes at this point in the story – the real cause of the man’s death will become apparent later on).
He buys a strange and unidentified new species of orchid which he intends to study closely. When he doesn’t show up for the regular ritual of afternoon tea, his cousin grows worried. When she goes into the hothouse where the orchids are housed, she finds him lying face upwards on the ground at the foot of the strange new orchid. The plant has grown aerial rootlets which have fastened themselves around him, feeding parasitically on him like leeches. He has fainted from lack of blood.
His cousin-cum-housekeeper rescues him from the hothouse and takes him off to bed, and the doctor comes to examine him. She and the doctor then go to inspect the hothouse, which is in disarray, with the flowers all shrivelling and dying. Wedderburn, however, is delighted and talkative because, finally, something exciting has happened to him.
Before John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and before The Little Shop of Horrors, there was ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’: H. G. Wells’s take on the ‘deadly and destructive plant’ subgenre of science fiction. However, in keeping with the smaller confines of the short-story form, there is no societal collapse or long line of victims: instead Wells concentrates the action on one man, one orchid, and, largely, one room (the hothouse or greenhouse where the plants are kept in warm, sunny conditions).
For Catherine Maxwell in her fascinating book Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture, ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ is about the dangers of an appealing but ultimately destructive form of fin de siècle decadence: many of the key tropes of decadent literature, Maxwell observes, are present in the story, from the strange flower, the poisonous perform which overwhelms the senses, and the idea of some foreign invader. The ‘vampirical decadence’ which Wells takes aim at here is akin to the deadly aestheticism which does for the protagonist of ‘The Beautiful Suit’, another Wells tale from this period.
But ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ ends on a surprising note. Rather than lamenting his former naivety – when he wished for some adventure to befall his otherwise dull and unremarkable life – the unfortunately named Wedderburn is actually strangely thrilled by his near-death experience. Is there something in Wells’s story that prefigures Dracula, Bram Stoker’s novel which would be published three years later in 1897? Jonathan Harker, at the mercy of the women at Dracula’s castle, was similarly thrilled and in mortal danger at the tendril-like hands of his female predators.
In this connection, it is perhaps significant that Wedderburn’s female cousin is alert to the dangerous strangeness of the plant:
But she said that the orchid-house was so hot it gave her the headache. She had seen the plant once again, and the aerial rootlets, which were now some of them more than a foot long, had unfortunately reminded her of tentacles reaching out after something; and they got into her dreams, growing after her with incredible rapidity.
Of course, words like ‘flowering’, which appears in the story’s title, were often used euphemistically to refer to the female genitalia and to menstruation (something of this language survives in the term ‘deflower’, meaning to deprive a woman of her virginity). And Wells’s description of the orchid’s leaves is noteworthy:
They were of the ordinary broad form, and a deep glossy green, with splashes and dots of deep red towards the base.
These broad leaves with blood-red spots on them can be read symbolically, of course. Although the word ‘orchid’ may etymologically derive from the Greek for ‘testicle’ (because of the plant’s distinctive shape), Wells’s symbolism suggests the female sex organs rather than the male, and this explains why the male character is more at risk of the plant’s attractions than his female cousin.