Sharon Biggs Waller's second YA novel is a romantic historical adventure with an unforgettable British heroine at its heart. In 1861, Elodie Buchanan is the daughter of a plant hunter. Her father often travels to China to collect precious plant specimens, but his failure to find an extremely valuable orchid could mean financial ruin for their whole family. He has one chance to find the orchid, with Elodie by his side. Waller shares a look behind her atmospheric and enjoyable new novel.
I never know where inspiration for my next story will hit. It can be something as simple as a painting or a statue or a place. Both of my novels, A Mad, Wicked Folly and The Forbidden Orchid, are set in England because it has always been a wellspring of ideas for me. As a historical fiction writer, I find history is everywhere in England, even underfoot—a few years ago archeologists found a Roman mosaic floor underneath a cricket pitch.
England is also a land of gardeners; in fact, after soccer it’s pretty much their national pastime. My husband and mother-in-law are keen gardeners, and so their passion rubbed off on me. I had no idea that plants were so linked with English history. Roman conquerors brought in the sweet chestnut and walnut trees and figs, and English conquerors brought back tea, which later caused a war against China. The Victorians were largely responsible for importing the vast number of garden plants we have today, via their intrepid plant hunters who risked their lives to travel to far-flung and often dangerous lands searching for new and unusual plants. The humble rhododendron was collected high in the mountains of China, and the North American tulip tree was the first to cross the ocean to England.
The idea for The Forbidden Orchid came about when I saw an exhibit at the Museum of Gardening in Lambeth. The exhibit included the glass Wardian cases that made it possible to transport plants safely over long distances and arrive in their new land in good nick. The exhibit also talked about the dangerous occupation of the plant hunter. Men pitted themselves against one another, employers lived vicariously through their dashing hunters, and many ended up dying of gruesome accidents and illnesses or being captured by natives. But the risk was worth it; fortunes could be made from an unusual plant that no one else had.
One largely favored plant was the orchid. The Victorians adored them, but they had no idea how to care for them and often cooked them in their overheated greenhouses called “stoves.” So these temporary plants were in high demand: The more unusual, the better. What was more, orchids were a man’s collection; women were not allowed to have them as it was deemed unseemly (although Queen Victoria loved them and had quite a collection).
That exhibit also made me think of the duality of plants, and how for humans, what can cure us or bring us pleasure or relief from pain can also kill us and ruin our lives. When working through the themes of the book, I found a parallel between all of the characters and the plants I chose to include—tea, which prompted England to force opium on China; orchids, which caused unbridled passion among collectors; opium poppies, which soothed pain and caused extreme wide-spread addiction that exists today; and Artemisia annua, an ancient plant that cures malaria and is now coming back into favor. In fact, soon after I turned in Orchid to my edits, Tu Youyou, a Chinese pharmaceutical chemist, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for extracting the substance from Artemisia annua, helping millions of people worldwide with malaria.
And so, inspired, the idea for a book about a teen plant hunter started to take shape in my mind. I loved the idea of a girl who longed to see the wider world, but knew society and family expected her to remain at home. When a scrap of a plant her father gave her began to bloom into an orchid, she begins to bloom, too, and dares to venture out into the wider world.
Author photo credit Edda Taylor.