Gardening detectives, both professional and amateur, abound in crime fiction and they appeared early on. Wilkie Collins introduced the first horticulturally inclined investigator in The Moonstone. The serialized story first appeared in the United Kingdom in January 1868 in Charles Dickens’s periodical All the Year Round and simultaneously in Harper’s Weekly in the United States. That summer, it also appeared as a “triple-decker,” a three-volume set published by Tinsley Brothers in London. Unlike the cheap penny dreadfuls that had preceded it, the trio of hardcover books legitimized detective fiction in the English language. Dickens was a friend and mentor of Collins, and likely influenced him with his own Inspector Bucket, an intelligent, intuitive character who had appeared in Bleak House more than a decade earlier. But it is Collins who first gave his detective vital gardening credentials.


One of these days (please God), I shall retire from catching thieves, and try my hand at growing roses.  


Unlike Poe’s Auguste Dupin, Sergeant Cuff is a professional crime fighter, an inspector at the Metropolitan Branch, now famously known as Scotland Yard. We never learn his first name. Cuff is often heard whistling “The Last Rose of Summer,” an immensely popular if mournful song by Irish poet Thomas Moore, set to a traditional air. (If you aren’t familiar with the song, the version recorded by Nina Simone is superb.) Wilkie Collins omitted the lyrics from the book. Why bother when every nineteenth century reader would have known them by heart? It is a gardener’s lament, and a lover’s:

‘Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes
Or give sigh for sigh!

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one,
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o’er the bed
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from love’s shining circle
The gems drop away!
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

The words fit hand-in-glove with the plot. Or perhaps jewel-in-setting would be a better analogy. The Moonstone revolves around a sacred diamond, looted by an officer of the British East India Company at the storming of Seringapatam—a fictional gem, but a real battle that took place in southern India on the fourth of May 1799. There is reason to believe the diamond is cursed. In the novel, the valuable jewel makes its way to London and thence to the Yorkshire estate of the widowed Lady Verinder as a bequest to—or, one might say, a hex on—her daughter. It is eighteen-year-old Rachel Verinder’s birthday. That night after receiving her gift, the diamond disappears.

Sergeant Cuff is called to the scene. Rachel’s cousin Franklin Blake declares, “If half the stories I have heard are true, when it comes to unravelling a mystery, there isn’t an equal in England of Sergeant Cuff.” The gaunt, grey-haired Cuff has, we are told, a face “as sharp as a hatchet” with skin “as yellow and withered as an autumn leaf.” In his black suit and white cravat, he could be a cleric or an undertaker. One would not have taken him for a gardener, yet a gardener he is. “When I have a moment’s fondness to bestow, most times the roses get it,” says Cuff.

Plant lovers can be split into two families. Generalists have rarely met a green growing thing they didn’t like and, more often than not, want to bring home to their own gardens. I count myself among their number. Then there are the specialists. A particular plant captures the specialist’s heart. It might be the Rose, Dahlia, or African Violet, though sometimes it is a broader grouping like alpines or native plants. Out of this fervor, plant societies and exhibitions are born.

For Sergeant Cuff, there is only one plant: the rose. While he mentions, with modesty, that he hopes to try his hand at growing them, he is already something of an authority. Through his eyes and exclamations, the reader steps into the Verinder rose garden, entered through an evergreen arch and laid out as a circle in a square. There are blush roses and musk, and the “old English rose holding up its head along with the best and the newest of them.” He approves of the orientation, with “the right exposure to the south and sou’-west.” While collecting clues and drawing inferences in the mystery of the Moonstone, he finds time to engage Lady Verinder’s gardener in intense rose-related debates, including the relative merits of grass versus gravel for surfacing rose garden walks.

Lady Verinder’s “rosery” and Sergeant Cuff ’s passion reflect the horticultural trend of the day. The nineteenth century was a boom time for rose growing in England. While roses have a long history in the British Isles, they had a slow start. A mere handful of species and hybrids grew in the villas of the Roman occupiers, the walled gardens of medieval castle and monastery, and the physic gardens and manicured beds of the early modern era. The War of the Roses gave two of them—a white rose and a red—bloody notoriety; the Tudors adopted a third. But the introduction of the China rose, Rosa chinensis, to Europe in the mid-1700s tipped the scale. Enthusiastic hybridizers on both sides of the Channel and across the Atlantic began crossing china roses with other known varieties. Results were spectacular. The offspring yielded a spectrum of color, fragrance, and habit as well as a tendency to rebloom in one season. By the reign of Victoria, a rose garden was a must, whether you were one of the landed gentry like Lady Verinder or stood solidly with Sergeant Cuff in the echelons of the respectable working class. Through the course of the story, we find Sergeant Cuff and Verinder’s Scottish gardener, Mr. Begbie, wrangling over the grafting of roses. The arguments were friendly, if intense, sometimes lubricated by a bottle of whiskey. Would the white moss rose be more likely to flourish on the roots of a dog rose? “Yes,” says Begbie; “No,” says Cuff, it should be grown on its own roots. Grafting the canes of a tender rose onto hardier root stock of a different species can increase its vigor. Their argument evokes the novel’s themes of race and empire. It parallels the love triangle propelling The Moonstone.

Rachel Verinder, the daughter of the house, seems to be falling for the passionate if directionless Franklin Blake, who is recently back from years on the Continent. Competing for her affections is the well-known, seemingly bland philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite. Which gentleman would be the more appropriate match? And what is the connection to rose grafting?

Gardeners were well acquainted with the native dog rose, Rosa canina, a familiar plant of hedgerow and scrubland. Samuel Reynolds Hole, a prominent rosarian of the time, called it “the jolly Dog-Rose, that rough, wild vagabond.” He wondered about the propriety of its union with more refined species like the white moss rose. S. Reynolds Hole might as well have been comparing rough, wild Franklin Blake to the polished Ablewhite.

The Reverend Hole, an Anglican priest and later Dean of Rochester Cathedral, was a personality in his own right. He had long cultivated a garden at the vicarage in Caunton Manor, but with nary a rose within. His first encounter with roses was a sort of “road to Damascus” event. He’d been asked to judge an Easter Monday rose exhibition, put on by a local working men’s club in nearby Nottingham. With the fragrant, blooming entries displayed in an upstairs room of a corner pub, he was converted. Hole went on to organize England’s first national show dedicated to the genus, held in London in 1858. It became an annual event and promulgated rose growing in fact and fiction.

Wilkie Collins, a Londoner, was so familiar with the city’s floral exhibitions, he wrote them into The Moonstone. When Rachel, distressed by the loss of her diamond, moves to the family’s residence in town, she takes up a “whole round of gaieties.” There are operas, balls, and “flower-shows.” Roses bloom throughout the plot. They fill the window of the Verinders’ London sitting room and adorn gentlemen’s buttonholes. They sidle into the name of a desolate servant, Rosanna Spearman, who is a key to the action. Yet despite this rosy window dressing, the disappearance of the Moonstone continues to nag at all—even, it seems, the retired Sergeant Cuff.

Gardening had always been Cuff ’s retirement plan, a plan he implements as the story progresses. When the case stalls, Lady Verinder dismisses him, and he trades Scotland Yard for a small “yard” of his own in Surrey, south of London. When Franklin Blake, one of the many suspects, makes his way to Cuff ’s rural cottage, he notes:

‘Through the trellis-work, … [I] saw the great Cuff’s favorite flower everywhere; blooming in his garden, clustering over his door, looking in at windows. Far from the crimes and the mysteries of the great city, the illustrious thief-taker was placidly living out the last Sybarite years of his life, smothered in roses!’

Cuff is not at home to receive his caller but off on a trip to Ireland, visiting some “great man’s gardener [who] has found out something new in the growing of roses.” The former detective has turned his analytical skills and prodigious energy to “the peaceful floricultural attractions of a country life” and the full-time pursuit of the genus Rosa. Without giving away the denouement, suffice it to say that Cuff suspends his retirement, the diamond returns to its rightful place, and wedding bells ring. We can presume that Cuff happily returned to Surrey to live out his life among the roses.


Gardening is good as a smoke-screen, and the habit of observing birds through powerful glasses can always be turned to account. —MISS MARPLE IN MURDER AT THE VICARAGE (1930)

Sergeant Cuff, groundbreaker of gardening detectives in English language mysteries, was followed by a host of compatriots. Had he visited Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in her fictional village of St. Mary Mead, assuredly they would have discussed roses. In December 1927, Christie unveiled Jane Marple in a set of short stories, delicious to read, with glimpses into a character still developing in the mind of her creator.

Marple’s first mention is as Aunt Jane. Her nephew Raymond West, a writer, describes her in detail. The genteel Miss Marple wears old-fashioned attire. That evening her dress was brocade and lace; in later stories it would often be tweed. Her posture is impeccable, her hair white, her blue eyes faded but alert. Seated in her comfortable parlor, her hands are busy with knitting needles and wool.

Raymond addresses a small group that he has assembled for a “Tuesday Night Club.” Joining him and his aunt, we have an artist, a clergyman, a solicitor, and a retired commissioner of Scotland Yard. Their purpose is to reconsider unsolved mysteries, what today we would call cold cases. Aunt Jane may flutter and digress, but at the conclusion of each short story she proves the canniest of the bunch.

She also proves an avid gardener. The character quickly emerged as one of Christie’s favorite detectives. Miss Marple’s first book-length appearance, Murder at the Vicarage (1930), offers more detail about her place in the wider world as well as the world of horticulture.

Her gardens surround a comfortable house that faces the High Street in the prototypical English village of St. Mary Mead. Set well back from the road, her snug property sits between Dr. Haydock’s—the local medical practitioner—on one side and Miss Hartnell’s on the other. A little lane runs diagonally behind her back garden and terminates at the vicar’s garden gate. Neighbors walking down the lane are well positioned to admire Miss Marple’s roses, and she is equally well positioned to observe the goings-on.

A public footpath opposite her back gate runs through a woodland, the perfect spot for an illicit rendezvous or for sequestering a clue. In Murder at the Vicarage, we encounter one of the suspects exploring the woods, looking for a nice rock for Miss Marple’s garden—not just any garden, but her Japanese garden.

In real-life London, they were all the rage. The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 had set it off. A giant trade fair, the Exhibition’s 140-acre site included two large gardens: the Garden of Floating Islands and the Garden of Peace. (The latter has been reconstructed in Hammersmith Park.) Japanese specialists designed the two show gardens; a Japanese head gardener supervised their construction. There were tea houses and temples, specimen plants from Japan, naturalistic water features and, of course, many rocks.

Held in the Great White City in Shepherd’s Bush, the Exhibition’s six-month run from May through October 1910 attracted eight million visitors. It isn’t a stretch to think that a twenty-year-old Miss Agatha Miller— before she married Archibald Christie in 1914—attended the Exhibition, as she often stayed with her paternal grandmother in London. The craze for Japanese gardens came to an abrupt halt when Japan allied with Germany and Italy in 1940 during the Second World War.

As Miss Marple emerged fully mature from Christie’s typewriter over the course of twenty short stories and twelve novels, many details came to light about her gardening interests, though not precisely how and when she acquired her horticultural skills. A German governess taught Jane and her sister about the language of flowers, knowledge which later proves valuable in deciphering clues. Jane Marple prefers antique roses over the newer hybrids. Her garden is filled with the fragrant flowers of an English cottage garden. There are peonies and sweet peas. Of heliotropes, she knows that the cultivar ‘Cherry Pie’ is prized for its scent.

Miss Marple is knowledgeable on all subjects horticultural. When called upon, she can name a plant with proper nomenclature. With a detective’s eye, she identifies white-flowering silver fleece vine as Polygonum baldschuanicum. (I like to think she would also know it has since been reclassified as Fallopia aubertii.) By whatever alias, she recognizes the plant as a menace, growing at a terrifying rate and spreading by seed and underground runners.

As to garden maintenance, Marple has high standards. Weeds vex her, whether in her own garden or elsewhere. Groundsel and ground elder are among her archenemies. She reserves her harshest words for bindweed, the worst fiend of all. Like some murders, it has long, insidious roots. Poorly pruned shrubs make her long for her secateurs. She keeps her roses deadheaded to prolong their bloom. Slugs are a worry. The garden means hard work to Miss Marple, but also great pleasure, a balance that any avid gardener can appreciate.

She has friends who share her gardening enthusiasm. Prominent among them is Dolly Bantry, whose passion and budget for plants exceed her own. Dolly’s favorite reading material is a bulb catalogue. One generally finds her with fingers in the soil working in the flower gardens at her home, Gossington Hall. Dolly and her friend Jane commiserate over the lack of rain. (Gardeners, fictional and otherwise, are notable complainers about the weather.) Dolly is careful with her gentians, proud of her delphiniums, and boastful of her irises. Though Dolly has many sterling qualities, humility is not among them.

Reading mystery series that endure for decades sometimes requires a healthy suspension of disbelief on the part of devoted fans. If, as Christie once said, Miss Marple was born at age sixty-five or seventy, she must have been upward of one hundred and ten by the end of her run. Dame Agatha, honored by Queen Elizabeth in 1971, remained silent on her character’s birthdays as time went on. But in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), Christie has Miss Marple confront some realities about the passage of time for a garden and a gardener.

Getting old is inevitable. For a gardener it is an especially bitter pill. Miss Marple’s doctor has forbidden most horticultural tasks. Her days of planting and digging are over; only light pruning is permitted. The gardener she employs is disappointing. “Old Laycock” comes like clockwork three times a week but has more enthusiasm for consuming cups of tea and cultivating vegetables and annuals than for maintaining Miss Marple’s herbaceous border. Her lovely canterbury bells have been replaced with pedestrian salvias. He chops her heirloom rosebushes as if they were hybrid teas, and he hasn’t the least interest in trenching her sweet peas or coddling the meconopsis.

Her friend Dolly, a contemporary in age, is also forced to give up her mammoth gardening endeavors. By the time of The Mirror Crack’d, the now-widowed Dolly Bantry has downsized. She has sold Gossington Hall. When she isn’t abroad, she lives in the East Lodge on the only corner of the property she retained. The new owners of the Hall, a film star and her producer husband, are opening the house and grounds—now maintained by an outside firm and enhanced with a swimming pool—for a charity benefit. Dolly eagerly attends. If one can no longer tend one’s own borders, one can still engage vicariously by visiting other people’s gardens and discussing the changes—tsk, tsk—with one’s best friend.

Miss Marple’s final case was Nemesis, published in 1971. (Though the publisher advertised Sleeping Murder [1976] as “Miss Marple’s Last Case,” Christie had written it in the 1940s and banked the manuscript for her heirs who published it after her death.) In Nemesis, Miss Marple is unequivocal in terms of garden preferences. It is flowers over vegetables for her, as it was for Agatha Christie, choosing aesthetic over utilitarian in the garden. Yet we find evidence that Jane Marple made some exceptions for herbs and other useful plants.

Through the course of the novels and short stories, Miss Marple offers a variety of home-brewed garden tonics. A soporific infusion of chamomile would soothe a restless guest. Tansy is a key ingredient in her grandmother’s herbal tea. She steeps macerated plums in sugar and alcohol for her special damson gin. Primula veris, the basis for her cowslip wine, blooms wild in the fields and meadows around the village. That is fortunate, as every batch needs several pecks of bloom.

Among sleuths, Miss Marple has good company in her interest in botanicals of the homeopathic and alcoholic varieties, including a medieval monk gardening at an abbey near the Welsh border.


They had entered the walled garden, and were suddenly engulfed and drowned in all those sun-drenched fragrances, rosemary, thyme, fennel, dill, sage, lavender, a whole world of secret sweetness. The heat of the sun lingered, heady with scent, even into the cool of the evening. Over their heads swifts wheeled and screamed in ecstasy. —BROTHER CADFAEL IN ONE CORPSE TOO MANY (1980)

Eight centuries before Miss Marple, another gardener-sleuth in the British Isles tended a fictional herb garden. Brother Cadfael is a creation of Ellis Peters, one of several noms de plume of British author Edith Pargeter, who penned dozens of novels between the thirties and the nineties, with twenty of them featuring her well known detective of the cloth. Cadfael is an early twelfth-century Welsh monk, and the herbalist of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. Of middle years, Cadfael was blessed with a late vocation after wide experience with warfare, women, and life in general.

Ellis Peters popularized a subgenre, the historical mystery, layering the patina of the distant past with the established formula of the whodunnit. As with Miss Marple, Cadfael’s chronicles can be pegged to events from the historical record. A delegation headed by Prior Robert from Shrewsbury did, in fact, “translate” the bones of St. Winifred from Holywell in Wales to the Abbey church in 1138. The period of civil strife that appears in the foreground of many of the Cadfael plots was so bloody and prolonged that historians have dubbed it “The Anarchy.” Accounts of church and state provided Ellis Peters with perfect backdrops for murder. The Benedictine monastic practices gave her a solid motive for placing her protagonist in a garden.

The Rule of Saint Benedict was old by Cadfael’s day. Written by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, it laid out the ideal practices for a religious community with a central tenet of ora et labora—prayer and work—alongside the usual triumvirate of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The concept of work as integral to monastic life, linked with Benedict’s dictates for treatment of guests and care of the sick, elevated the importance of the medicinal garden. This garden was Cadfael’s domain.

Unlike Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, it is possible to find Shrewsbury on maps of England. It is in the county of Shropshire immediately to the east of the border with Wales. Shrewsbury Abbey still sits on the main road near the river Severn, not far from the English Bridge and south of the castle. But should you attempt a pilgrimage to seek out the monastery’s herb garden, blame your disappointment on Henry VIII’s sticky divorce and the monastic dissolution in its aftermath.

The Abbey, founded in 1083, was disbanded by the king’s henchpersons in January 1540, and the abbot and monks pensioned off. St. Winifred’s bones were scattered to the gale force of the Reformation. The Abbey’s precincts were destroyed. There are some remnants: a few walls and the refectory pulpit. Parts of the eleventh-century nave and transept are incorporated into the much-restored Abbey church, now a part of the Church of England’s Diocese of Lichfield. All traces have vanished of cloister garth, herb and vegetable gardens, and orchard. We must instead rely on the careful interpretation and creative power of Ellis Peters to see them through the day-to-day life of her main character.

As the Abbey’s herbalist, Brother Cadfael is most often busy in the herb garden or in the adjacent workshop for drying, storing, and extracting essences from the harvest. He is a skilled gardener, curious in the old Latin sense of the word, as in cura for “care” and curiosus for “careful.” The equivalent of today’s pharmacist, he takes pains over plants and people, making tinctures and salves, draughts and syrups.

When we meet him in the first novel of the series, A Morbid Taste for Bones, he has been responsible for the abbey’s herb garden for over a decade. The twenty books that follow find him thinning seedlings, enriching the garden soil, hybridizing poppies, and planting crops in rotation and succession. Where he learned to distinguish willowherb from thyme is unknown, though it may have been in his wanderings around the Mediterranean, first as a crusader who made his way to Jerusalem and later as a sea captain.

Cadfael is equally curious about unusual occurrences—particularly deaths—that take place in and around the abbey. (While a religious house seems an incongruous place for multiple homicides, it is an unfortunate fact that settings for mystery series are, by definition, murder magnets.) Plants offer hints to Cadfael, clues about where or how a particular person has died, a medieval foretaste of modern forensics.

Cadfael’s garden is typical of the Norman period. While Ellis Peters did not tend her own herb garden—she once told an interviewer from Mother Earth Living that the plants in her garden that would qualify as herbs were limited to a few kitchen standbys like rosemary—she was a meticulous researcher. A careful read of the Cadfael series is an entertaining, informative introduction to the layout and plantings of the monastery’s gardens.

Cadfael’s herb garden at Shrewsbury Abbey is walled, a hortus conclusus. His faith honors the symbolism of the enclosed garden: the purity of the Virgin, the Annunciation, the new Jerusalem, and the bond of savior and church. But Cadfael the gardener appreciates its masonry walls for their functionality. They keep out animals for one. As important, they concentrate and retain the heat embraced by the many exotic plants Cadfael has assembled. He grows poppies, for example, from paynim seeds collected in his travels (paynim being the Middle English word for “pagan” or, at the time, “Muslim”). Nowadays we know them as Papaver somniferum, or opium poppies.

Five of the Cadfael books, plus a short story called “A Rare Benedictine,” refer to the healing powers of lavender. The lavender in the Abbey’s walled garden, also native to the Mediterranean, was common in monastery gardens throughout Europe by Cadfael’s time. The Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a contemporary of the fictional Cadfael, wrote of healing plants in her Physica, in the 1150s. Of lavender she recommended the following, here translated from the original Latin:

‘Spike lavender (spica) is hot and dry, and its heat is healthy. Whoever cooks this lavender in wine or, if he has no wine, honey and water, and frequently drinks it when it is warm, will lessen the pain in his liver and lungs, and the stuffiness in his chest. It also makes his thinking and disposition pure.’

 I like to picture the fictional Cadfael corresponding with the real Hildegard over the healing properties of plants such as lavender. However, Ellis Peters relied not on Hildegard’s Physica, but on the herbal of another physician-botanist for her background research. “I draw a great deal on Culpeper,” she said in a 1993 interview. “He’s a much later period, of course, but his information is sound.” Nicholas Culpeper was a seventeenth-century London physician, a profession which, at the time, combined doctor, apothecary, astrologist, and, in his case, renegade. An educated man of simple Puritan dress and an enthusiastic handlebar moustache, he took the radical step of writing a layman’s manual of herbal cures in English rather than Latin. This self-help guide to healing, The English Physician of 1652, did not make him popular with his fellow medical practitioners, who saw it as undermining their authority—and income.

Throughout the Cadfael series, Peters referenced over one hundred plants. Among them was only one member of the orchid family, the wild English orchis that Brother Cadfael called fox-stones. (Why fox-stones? Orchis mascula, sometimes called the male orchid, has two dangling root tubers, suggesting to some the testicles of a male fox. Of this orchis, Culpeper wrote “under the dominion of Dame Venus…[they] provoke lust exceedingly.”) But it would take another writer and his famous fictional detective, operating in the twentieth century rather than the twelfth, to bring orchids to prominence in the world of the mystery.


 Everything in life must have a purpose except the culture of Orchidaceae. —NERO WOLFE IN FER-DE-LANCE (1934)

Another detective who led a gardening lifestyle that might be considered, in some respects, monastic is Nero Wolfe, hero of the prolific writer Rex Stout. On opening the pages of any of the Nero Wolfe canon—over forty novels and almost as many short stories—we find his character in New York City, cloistered and content in his West 35th Street home. The eccentric, corpulent, and complicated Wolfe has a gourmet chef-in-residence, adding to his creature comforts. His ability to gather the information necessary for crime-solving—his principal source of income—is enabled by another member of staff: his ironic sidekick-narrator, Archie Goodwin. In the ample brownstone Wolfe remains, except under the most unusual circumstances. There he spends much of his time nurturing his beloved orchids.

If you climb the seven steps up from the sidewalk and gain admittance to Chez Wolfe, you won’t see potted orchids in the public spaces. Should you snoop around the first floor, you may find some select cut blooms in Wolfe’s office, but he guards most of his prized plants jealously. To see the ten-thousand-odd specimens would require an invitation to the plant rooms. You could take the stairs or, like Wolfe, summon the brownstone’s 4-by-6 elevator.

His plant rooms form the fifth-floor penthouse. Wolfe started his orchid empire atop the building’s roof when a passing fancy morphed into a something akin to madness. There are three glass rooms distinguished by the temperature requirements of different orchid species: cool, intermediate, and tropical. The rooms are outfitted with concrete benches and metal staging platforms (a kind of portable shelving) to facilitate display and air circulation. In the heat of summer, lath screens cover the glass to cut the intensity of the New York sun. There are smaller areas for propagation, potting, and storage. There is also a room or rooms—accommodations for the resident orchid expert, Theodore Horstmann. Archie describes him as “the best orchid nurse alive.”

Horstmann assists Wolfe—or vice versa, depending on whom you ask—in cultivating the collection. Though the Nero Wolfe corpus reveals little about Horstmann’s back-story—where he trained or worked prior to Wolfe’s plant rooms is left unsaid—we do know that he has strong opinions on the finer points of cultivation and hybridization. The two do not always see eye-to-eye on these matters, and are sometimes heard in vociferous argument. It was the laconic Horstmann who designed the misting equipment that maintains proper humidity. Archie, among his many responsibilities, keeps the detailed orchid inventory—acquisitions, breeding records, and the occasional demise of a plant—in the first-floor office that he shares with his boss.

Author Rex Stout, in a 1963 article in Life Magazine, recounted the origin story of his character’s obsession. “Wolfe started on orchids many years ago with a specimen plant of Vanda suavis, given to him by the wife of a man he had cleared on a murder rap.” That candy-scented vanda, originally from southeast Asia, had charms that infected its new owner. With a purple lip and petals with brushstroke spots of magenta, Nero Wolfe could feel the color, suggesting that among his many genius qualities, perhaps he had a form of synesthesia.

The vanda survived only briefly in the growing conditions of Wolfe’s office. When it died, it threw down the horticultural gauntlet. Wolfe took up the challenge. He bought twenty more plants and added the first small greenhouse on the roof. From that point, Wolfe’s appetite for orchids was never sated.

Collecting rare specimens of the varied tribes of Orchidaceae requires deep pockets and drives Wolfe’s insistence on large fees for his investigative services. He is relentless in his pursuit of unusual varieties, acquiring them from commercial nurseries or cutting out the middleman and buying them directly from plant explorers. Once he agreed to take on a case in exchange for a set of three rare black orchids. He sometimes barters plants with other private hybridizers. While he is known for occasional orchid largesse, bestowing blossoms for sentimental or practical reasons, his plants are not for sale.

Many real people of the society pages, including Doris Duke and several members of the du Pont family, shared Wolfe’s fictional compulsion. Through the early decades of the twentieth century, orchids became a symbol, if not the symbol, of luxury in America and beyond. They were unusual and expensive, with exquisite, often scented blooms, redolent of jungle and tropics. At the time—well before mass production tissue culture brought them to supermarkets and big box stores—they had mystique. They were favorites of Madison Avenue, used to market whiskey, California citrus fruits, leather goods, couture, cosmetics, and perfume. In 1937, Green Giant advertised its canned peas as “The Orchid of the Pea Family.” When Rex Stout chose orchid growing as his detective’s passion, he picked a plant that had already captured the American imagination.

The Nero Wolfe stories teem with orchids. Michael Bishop, a member of the devoted fan base known collectively as “The Wolfe Pack,” cataloged every instance and type of orchid, organized by title in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe oeuvre. Topping the list are the fifteen orchid varieties in the first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance and the twenty-two in Murder by the Book. As to species, those in the genus Phalaenopsis get the most frequent nod, in particular the cultivar ‘Aphrodite’ with its long-blooming racemes of white flowers.

Wolfe also hybridizes orchids, breeding and propagating them in sterile conditions that seem closer to laboratory than plant nursery. Discipline and patience are among the demands of his “concubines,” as he occasionally refers to them. His orchid crosses are also a cross to bear; it can take up to seven years for one of his hybrid-produced seedlings to mature and, at last, to bloom.

Unlike Sherlock Holmes and his occasional violin practice, Wolfe devotes part of each day to his orchids in the plant rooms. He spends four hours precisely, divided into two sessions: from 9:00 to 11:00 in the morning and 4:00 to 6:00 post meridiem. Those who hope to see him book an appointment through Archie for a time that does not conflict with the orchids—or meals—as Wolfe rarely alters his schedule.

Wolfe is also a gastronome, and, as such, herbs appear on menus in many of his stories. Lunch might offer a meat entrée with béchamel sauce and chervil. The squash side dish at dinner might be garnished with dill. However, Wolfe does not deign to squander greenhouse bench space with edibles; his plant rooms are reserved for orchids. If resident-chef Fritz Brenner runs out of fresh herbs in the kitchen, Archie sets out to find them in a shop, rather than fetch them from the greenhouse on the top floor.

Rex Stout published his last Nero Wolfe novel in 1975. Twenty years later, a new gardening detective emerged in the Texas Hill Country with Susan Wittig Albert’s Thyme of Death, released in 1992. The horticultural mystery genre was, by this time, well established. Albert’s lead character, like Wolfe, enjoys cooking and eating with herbs and, like Cadfael, appreciates their useful and medicinal properties. But unlike Miss Marple, amateur sleuth and horticulturist, China Bayles is a professional—a former attorney who has embarked on a second career.


When people ask me, “Why herbs?” I give them the short answer: “Because plants don’t talk back.” When they ask, “Why Pecan Springs?” I reply, “Because it seemed so crime-free and peaceful.” —CHINA BAYLES IN QUEEN ANNE’S LACE (2018)

At the opening of Susan Wittig Albert’s savvy, long-running series, her protagonist China Bayles has walked away from her high-pressure job as a big-city criminal defense attorney and remade herself. Two years earlier, she had relocated from Houston to the rural county seat of Pecan Springs and acquired a historic building on Crockett Street. She is now the proud proprietor of Thyme and Seasons, a business selling herbs for all reasons: fresh, dried, potted, and potions. It may not line her pockets, but it does nourish her soul.

Pecan Springs, however, is far from peaceful. Like St. Mary Mead and so many other small towns of detective fiction, the place is downright crime ridden. The number of murders makes one ponder the impact on the population count. A made-up place, Pecan Springs is the seat of fictional Adams County, somewhere between Austin and San Antonio. It is a sort of Everytown, USA. Pecan Springs has a courthouse square, a busy commercial center, and is a college town. And it is here that China Bayles has embarked on her plant pilgrimage.

The name “Pecan Springs” fits the bill, in terms of actual native flora and geology of the hill country. The pecan, Carya illinoinensis, reigns as the state tree of Texas as well as the town’s namesake. Natural springs and lakes abound courtesy of the limestone strata of the subterranean Edwards Aquifer. Along the eroded eastern side of the Edwards Plateau, the hill country undulates through a large area deep in the heart of the Lone Star State. Albert finds many opportunities to interject satisfying mini lessons on the region’s plant life and topography.

As Thyme and Seasons expands, China transforms the property around her building. It was good-bye lawn; hello, herb garden! To be more precise, gardens. There is a garden for tea, a garden for the butterflies, another for chefs, and still another for textile artists interested in natural dyes. You can probably picture it. Think of an herb garden design, and you will likely conjure a geometric grid—a square or rectangle is the most common— subdivided into practical, manageable beds, something akin to a traditional quilt pattern. Brother Cadfael would have approved.

This type of garden had a rebirth in popularity around the turn of the twentieth century. In England, it reemerged as part of the Arts and Crafts movement; in America, it was a fixture of the Colonial Revival. We learn in the first book of the series, Thyme of Death (1992), that like so many gardeners, China’s love of gardening came from her grandmother. Nostalgia is a powerful motivator.

Grandmother—whether Bayles or on the distaff side—would have been a fictional contemporary of nonfiction garden writer Alice Morse Earle, whose Old Time Gardens (1901) celebrated tidy, boxwood-edged beds and the traditional flowers and herbs of America’s colonial past. A white picket fence was de rigueur; a sundial atop a white column was an appropriate focal point. The plants in China’s herb beds attract both pollinators and people to her shop, bolstering sales along the way.

China Bayles finds other ways to build her clientele. She writes a newsletter and pens a gardening column for the local newspaper, the Enterprise. If you live in town and run a community group, say the Friends of the Pecan Springs Public Library, you can book one of her herb-inspired lectures. Selected herb lore that protagonist China—read Susan Wittig Albert herself—collects provides the chapter headings of the novels. Rosemary Remembered, for example, incorporates quotes from Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More, poet Robert Herrick, and assorted modern and antique herbals. As useful plants, herbs have held a place in botanical literature as far back as humans have put quill to parchment or reed to papyrus.

In the Americas, cultivating herbs has had a long history, and Susan Wittig Albert weaves it into her plots. Tribal peoples grew them. When European colonists arrived and spread from sea to shining sea, they brought an influx of their own herbal species, carrying the seeds and cuttings that would offer flavorings for the pantry and remedies for the medicine chest. Some of the plants, like Queen Anne’s lace, naturalized so effectively that the average person would identify it as an all-American wildflower. (It was from Albert and her inimitable China Bayles that I learned that this carrot-family relative was widely used in pre-pharmaceutical family planning.)

As with Queen Anne’s Lace (the book), each China Bayles novel spotlights one plant species. If you pick up Rueful Death, you can be assured that the rue herb will be woven artfully through the plot, and that you will learn a great deal about how to grow and use it as the action unfolds. Some of the books include recipes, as Bayles makes them, for their titular herbs.

While the energetic China discovers that her laid-back country lifestyle has given her more time to enjoy cooking and life in general, her understanding of the criminal justice system and her analytical skills do not go dormant. Yes, murders keep cropping up in Pecan Springs, and Bayles is a natural-born sleuth. She can’t resist investigating any mystery that comes her way, aided by her encyclopedic knowledge of herbs and the help of her friends. Pecan Springs has provided such fertile ground that several of the minor characters featured in the China Bayles books now star in series of their own, including Ruby Wilcox, owner of the New Age shop, Crystal Cave, and Jessica Nelson, Pecan Springs Enterprise crime reporter. All from the prolific pen of Susan Wittig Albert.

There are more detectives, both amateurs and pros, that are or have been devoted to plants. Perhaps it is because plant people—I put myself in this category—lean toward the obsessive, a definite plus for investigators. Martin Walker invented Chief Inspector Bruno Courrèges who tends his potager in the Périgord. Alan Bradley provided his eleven-year-old sleuth—well, almost eleven—with a gardening sidekick named Arthur Wesley Dogger. In the course of Lucy Clark Will Not Apologize, author Margo Rabb has her young detective learn how to garden. One of Charlotte MacLeod’s detectives is a professor of agronomy—crop and soil science—at a New England agricultural college. Two horticulturists, Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme, solve garden crimes over three seasons and twenty-two episodes of ITV’s Rosemary & Thyme. There are horticultural detectives who have operated in the past and present, at home and abroad. They tend to occupy the cozier class of mystery, as opposed to noir or hard-boiled. But whatever the category, they often find themselves in gardens. Whether elaborate or simple, famous or obscure, there is no better crime scene for a horticulturally minded sleuth to investigate than a garden.


From GARDENING CAN BE MURDER: HOW POISONOUS POPPIES, SINISTER SHOVELS, AND GRIM GARDENS HAVE INSPIRED MYSTERY WRITERS by Marta McDowell. Copyright ©2023 by Marta McDowell. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Timber Press. All rights reserved.