Drive-by orchids

The Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro is almost a pure grid. The longitudinal streets parallel to the beach carry heavy traffic and support only a few trees struggling against the diesel fumes. The shorter transversal streets are much quieter, and many have fine and quite luxuriant street trees, all of course the property of the city. Rua Anita Garibaldi is one of these streets near to Lu and me. Several of the trees support this:

The orchids have been planted by the inhabitants, and it´s become something of a competition between the blocks of condo flats. A few are in pots, but most are rooted normally in the tree bark. They look like florist´s hybrids to my unskilled eye rather than species, but that doesn´t seem to faze them.

Orchids in the cold North are iconic hothouse plants, and thought of as fragile as well as exotic. The CIA´s famous Cold War counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton hybridised orchids as a hobby, and as a rather obscure metaphor for his work. Did his orchids represent the KGB moles he saw everywhere, or his own equally obsessive and parasitic mole-hunters? But on their own tropical turf, or rather bark, orchids are the tough opportunists their way of life requires.The complex flowers target specialised pollinators: these will be harder to find in urban streets than congenial habitat, so don´t expect orchids to spread spontaneously to other streets. Calls to Angleton´s ghost on the question whether the seed of hybrid orchids is viable were not returned.

Brazilians are not famed for the sort of ostentatious civic virtue that leads Dutch housewives to sweep the pavements (AmE: sidewalks) in front of their houses, which traditionally have no curtains in the front windows hiding the family´s virtue and cleanliness from passers-by. Significantly, the concierges in Anita Garibaldi do sweep the pavements. I don´t want to read too much into a localised street orchid competition, but it is a good sign when our instinctive striving for status is channelled into such positive-sum games as, er, epifights.


  1. Calú says


    James, elas tem mesmo esse aspecto frágil, pórem são fortes e resistentes, assim como a Senhora que dá o nome a rua: ANITA GARIBALDI.
    A rua ganha um charme todo especial e nós que passamos por ali desfrutamos dessa romântica competição.

  2. Mark Kleiman says


    Yes, “pavement” in standard AmE refers to the roadbed, not to the paved strip between the road and the houses. One of the oddities of the Baltimorean dialect I grew up with (except at home) was the use of “pavement,” (pr. “payment”) to mean “sidewalk.” I hadn’t known until now that usage was standard BrE.

    • James Wimberley says


      The Carioca Portuguese should be ¨tank traps¨. The pretty ¨pedra portuguesa¨, small cubes of black and white marble set in uncompacted sand, needs constant maintenance. This is not forthcoming away from Copacabana beachfront, with its famous stylised waves by Burle Marx.