The flowers acquired associations of decay and disease

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerIn The Big Sleep, Marlowe meets his sickly, old client in the wealthy man’s orchid hothouse, which my annotated edition describes as “one of many symbols of wealth and decadence adorning the Sternwood residence”:

Orchid-collecting fever swept England and America at the turn of the twentieth century.


In literature the flowers acquired associations of decay and disease. In J. K. Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884), the sickly, impotent scion of an aristocratic family is smitten by their grotesque forms, “puffy leaves that seemed to be sweating blood and wine” and “sickly blooms” that appeared “ravaged by syphilis or leprosy.” His orchid fever ends in a fantastic dream encounter with a syphilitic orchid woman.

In H. G. Wells’s 1894 horror story “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” the carnivorous flower with roots “like fingers trying to get at you” drugs its victims with its heavy perfume, then sucks their blood.

Naturally I had to find a copy of The Flowering of the Strange Orchid. It’s a quick read.

A few points stood out. First, when the orchid collector gets his rare flowers, which had been collected by a man who died in the process, his housekeeper declares, “I should be afraid of some of the malaria clinging to them.” This is just before malaria‘s life cycle was understood.

Second, when the collector survives the orchid’s attack, his housekeeper gives him “brandy mixed with some pink extract of meat,” which reminded me of Bovril and the odd history of its name.


  1. Dan Kurt says:

    If bothered by the “extract of meat” in Bovril one can substitute another similar eccentric food (non-meat based) common to the British Empire depending on the location: Marmite or Vegemite. As a child I was served by an aunt as a treat wonderful white bread (crust removed) Marmite & lettuce sandwiches — little triangles about slider sized and oh so good.

    I always have a jar of Marmite at hand to spread on bread or use as a seasoning, an umami bomb. Bovril makes a spectacular broth to drink on a cold rainy day.

  2. Kirk says:

    Bovril, Marmite, and Vegemite are all staples of UK cuisine–A term which some would say should have air quotations around it, when used in reference to the UK…

    Honestly, I’ve always liked them. The Aussie/NZ versions are a little different, but it’s all good. Which, I suppose, puts me deep into the “iconoclast” school of food taste.

    I suppose I get it from childhood, where my exposure to various foods was eclectic, to say the least.

  3. Paul from Canada says:

    When I was a kid, Marmite on toast and Bovril soup was what you got to eat when suffering from stomach flu or gastritis. My favorite way to have Marmite now is to spread it on top of cheddar cheese on toast.

    I recall reading that during one of the sieges in the Boer War (Kimberly or Ladysmith), a local variant of Bovril called “Chervil” was made from dead horses.

  4. Bruce says:

    In ‘Tramp Royal’ Michael Bruce, (Scots Bart, SA police, soldier Boer war and WWI, stunt man, fought Gestapo before WWII, otherwise kept busy) does some exploring in the Amazon and mentions the orchids he passed through (while suffering disease and exhaustion) were extremely disgusting.

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