Anonymous Orchid Outlaw memoir goes to John Murray in 24-hour pre-empt

Anonymous Orchid Outlaw memoir goes to John Murray in 24-hour pre-empt

An anonymous academic’s memoir about his underground mission to save flowers from extinction, The Orchid Outlaw, has gone in a 24-hour pre-empt to John Murray. 

Patrick Walsh of PEW Literary sold British Commonwealth rights (excluding Canada) to Georgina Laycock, non-fiction publisher at John Murray. Written under the pen-name of Ben Jacobs, it will be a lead title for John Murray and the publisher has major plans around marketing and publicity. Publication is planned for spring 2023. 

“Ben Jacobs’ personal story is that he fell in love with orchids as a nine-year-old, when his parents bought him one of those beautiful white Cymbidium orchids which you’ll know from florists,” the synopsis reads. “That then led him to spend his twenties in various tropical cities, ostensibly to teach English as a foreign language, but really because they were close to jungles where exotic orchid species grew wild, pollinated by hummingbirds, huge moths and more.

"After a decade abroad, Ben returned to the UK, where his passion was reignited when he encountered a colony of Bee orchids, a cryptic British species which tricks bees into mating with its flowers.” 

This led Jacobs on a voyage of discovery before he turned “outlaw”. Walsh said: “Having long seen Britain’s orchids as pale shadows of their tropical cousins, he changed his mind and set out to find and photograph all 51 British species. Reading and learning everything he could, Ben realised that Britain’s orchids are in desperate trouble”.  

Some, such as Summer’s Lady Tresses, have gone extinct; others such as Ghost Orchid have not been seen since 2009 and all have experienced major declines. Changes in land use and climate are partly responsible but Jacobs also believes the UK's environmental laws do not protect the species in regards to building new homes and infrastructure.  

Jacobs decided to take action by saving orchids slated for destruction, climbing over fences, digging them out in the middle of the night and replanting them in safe places. He also taught himself how to germinate wild orchid seed, an incredibly complicated process often involving symbiotic fungi and warming and chilling periods. After numerous mishaps, he succeeded, growing seedlings and tubers, planting them into the wild, significantly boosting several rare species. However, the work he was doing was illegal and he could be fined £5,000 for each wild orchid plant he saved, or even face prison.

Walsh added: “The Orchid Outlaw is an incredible story which raises serious questions about our environmental legislation. For me this book will blend the activism of Nick Hayes’ Book of Trespass with the allure of Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief—there’s a wonderful mouse-that-roared element. The world definitely needs more Bens.”  

Jabobs, now an academic, said: “We’ve spent years on this mission. There have been ups and downs and we have learnt a lot, not only about orchids, but about people, the world, our place in it and how to save it. That is what this book is about.” 

Laycock commented: “Part memoir, part fascinating history of our most exotic and yet overlooked flower, we all fell in love with this real story, infused with an urgent sense of mission. What this book shows, inspiringly, is that, like Ben, we can all save our world, one plant at a time.”