Way back in the mid 1960’s I was able to choose a book as a school biology prize and, having no idea of what it would eventually mean in my life, I chose Summerhayes’ classic Wild Orchids of Britain. Although there here was much between its covers to fascinate an embryonic orchidomane it was hard not to be specially intrigued by Epipogium aphyllum, the ghost orchid, with its rarity and the sheer unpredictability of flowering.
Never in its evolutionary history can one imagine that the Ghost Orchid has been anything other than extremely uncommon at best: there were never woodland glades filled with this orchid growing like bluebells. Flowering is unpredictable in all its known localities throughout Europe into Asia and, though the pollination mechanism is effective, little seed is reputedly set. With the recent re-discovery by Mark Jannink of this taxon (a find subseqently verified by Dr Tim Rich of the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) in the UK for the first time since 1986 I thought it worthwhile to record some personal experiences and results of informal and continuing researches in Europe since I first started searching for it seriously in 1976. It is particularly heartening to hear of the discovery this year when my four visits to two known sites (both involving lengthy hikes into the Apennines) have revealed no flowering plants: at least last year we found two…
The search begins
In 1976 I was living in Wendover, Bucks and that memorably hot summer did not augur well for discovering the ghost orchid. It is generally accepted that sufficient rain in spring and early summer is essential since moisture stored in the rhizome stimulates the creation of the buds that will result in aerial stems. If conditions are too dry the rhizome continues to grow but buds (and even flowering stems) are aborted .
The following year things looked better and I made weekly pilgrimages to a certain far-too-well known beechwood near the town of Marlow. I hasten to add that, at this stage, my trustworthiness had been tested and established by the powers that ran BBONT (The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Naturalists trust) at that time through conservation work I had done and I finally entrusted with chapter and verse as to previous known beechwood locations.
Each time I went there I noticed at least one other person present and we played that essentially British botanical game where each nonchalently pretends not to notice the other (although they know quite well why they are there…). What struck me then and since is that this (and other locales) was an open secret and, however well-meaning, people going to look for it could well have been (and I would suggest still are) the biggest threat to its survival as they shuffled in the beech mast. The underground system with its rhizomes and stolons is not deep and it cannot be aided by general trampling. I found nothing in 1976 nor in 1977 making weekly visits from July to late September.
A telephone call in August 1978 alerted me to the discovery of a flowering stem that very day and the next, with precise coordinates, I was in the wood. Even then it was too late: there were no flowering stems but suspicious signs of the removal of a plant. To say I was angry would be an understatement and I made careful enquiries and a ‘professional’ name kept being mentioned but there was no concrete proof. The general feeling was that, if proof of the theft were to be forthcoming, there could well be another large hole in the beechwood – this time filled!
In September 1978 we left for a new life in Cyprus and, in 1979 we received a postcard to say that another spike had appeared and even that been removed. To those who would criticize Mark Jannink and Tim Rich about excessive secrecy you can have no idea of how driven some people are about rare orchids, butterflies…bird’s eggs. For normal folk it is hard to countenance the selfish obsessiveness of the very few. They are probably mentally ill – I have been involved in conservation for a long time and have had direct experience of some of these people and the steps to which they will go: even to the point of impersonation
The timeline in my tale shifts to 1985 though in the interim I had found a few orchids and written a book.. but now, back in Britain I received a telephone call from Germany where a close friend told me that, in its classic site at Hüfingen in the Black Forest there was an incredible flowering. Such things are impossible to resist and that afternoon I took the first of several trains, then a ferry to Ostend and an overnight train to Stuttgart…where, at 6am, I was greeted with a mug of hot coffee by German friends Ralf and Karin Berndt –Hansen and, by 9am I was shaking with excitement – surrounded (well almost) by flowering stems of the ghost orchid.
I know that some people feel a certain degree of ‘nationalism’ when it comes to orchids and feel they must see these things in Britain. I have long taken the attitude that I do not want to add my weight to the numbers going to see these orchids where they are endangered, thus helping to ensure their demise. There, in Germany in an ancient pinewood, a wonderful colony of these exquisite orchids survived (and still does) Locals know the site well and the fact that, across the road in another part of the wood grow large numbers of lady’s slipper flowering a couple of months earlier. There is great local pride taken in its protection.
In Germany I had the rare opportunity to study the orchids at close quarters and at leisure, noting the distinctive scent I had read about. It has been alternately described as sweet or foetid and resembling fermenting pineapples. This shows the unreliability of olfactory descriptions – to me it was distinctly sweet: I could not swear to either honey or pineapple tones. It may be worth pointing out that, although the wood at Hüfingen is of ancient pine it is not gloomy everywhere within like the UK beechwood sites –all the continental plants I have found either growing in beechwood/ mixed broadleaf or under pine were growing in lighter conditions, even at woodland edges where sparse grass was able to grow.
In every case the host woods have been long-established and the orchid plants we have found have always been where there is water close by in winter – a wet area in a wood, a ditch and so on. The substrate has always been calcareous but a plant’s immediate environment slightly acidic from the decaying leaf material.
As a pure saprophyte, any need for light would be questionable, especially since there are records of flowers being produced underground. This is accidental – probably an aborted spike since the pollinators do not burrow unlike two Australian species in the genus Rhizanthella that always flower underground.
Although I have not been back to the Hüfingen site I have happened by chance upon plants several times since and always in mountain regions of Europe. You get a ‘feel’ for the kind of wood – the pinewoods have plenty of moss, the beech an abundance of leaf litter with woodland species such as the wintergreens (Pyrolas) and other orchid taxa such as various Epipactis and, by flowering time seed-bearing stems of bird’s nest orchid (neottia nidus-avis). I can recall one site in northern Greece – an ancient beech wood where I explored in late July and then several finds in ancient pine and mixed woods in the Dolomites.
To the Present Day
Whilst living in Italy I have (for the last three years in succession) visited several known sites with Italian friends who, themselves, have been searching for decades. It does not matter where this orchid grows, it capriciousness seems universal. I never start off a day’s hike with anything more than mild hope – which is just as well, since I have just found it just once. With climatic conditions everywhere in Europe now highly unpredictable the chances of a wet spring are slim, but even when there is rain at what you might tentatively think was the right time flowering is, to say the least, uncertain.
There is one superb location in the Apennines some 2.5 hours journey from where we live. To get there demands hauling whatever photographic equipment you have for a good 90 minutes uphill in the heat. But when you get to a beechwood where a stream runs across the path in winter fatigue evaporates, when in the dappled light you glimpse the prize, trust me, I know. Last year we made the journey once and were rewarded: this year we did it three times and found nothing. What was particularly worrying was the apparent level of activity from wild boar which in Italy seem to have a love of orchid roots and tubers irrespective of rarity and are a major threat to their survival.
Next year I shall take some time to check out the sites in the Apennines and also further north in the Dolomites with the help of various Italian friends…maybe we shall succeed but it never really matters because the locations are superb.
In continental Europe sites can be threatened by logging and, ultimately by climate change. It is almost impossible to tell the extent of this given the known irregularity of flowering. There are numerous recorded instances of it appearing after long absences most likely from underground parts that have persisted –
E. aphyllum is not an easy orchid to find for it blends well with leaf litter on the woodland floor where there is dappled light .The difficulty in ever knowing with any degree of accuracy the distribution of a species like this is that numerous visits have to be made over a potentially lengthy flowering period in successive years. It is clear that Mark Jannink and Tim Rich have done that and been justly rewarded…serendipity is a great friend of orchid lovers.
Some Plant facts
The ghost orchid is an extremely attractive plant, irrespective of its almost legendary status as a rarity. The flowers are large for the overall size of the orchid slightly pendent and delicately hued. The lip has a crinkled margin with a large, triangular central lobe, it is whitish to delicate rose pink with purple papillae on its inner surface. white and delicately marked with rose pink whilst sepals are yellowish. and then there is that scent, delicate but sweet. There are purple streaks on the outers surface and the rather fat spur.
Small humble bees are said to be the most successful pollinators as their size is just right to effect pollination .The bee lands on the exposed part of the lip and makes its way towards the spur where it can reach the nectar. As it backs out it ruptures the delicate rostellum, the anther cap is pulled away and the pollinia exposed – these stick to the head parts of the bee.
Very few seed capsules are produced in the UK (R.A Graham noted one in a group of 22 flowering stems he chanced upon). I have seen a few capsules where the plants grew in lighter cover in larger colonies where, presumably, there was an increased chance of a productive insect encounter.
E. aphyllum is a Eurasian species extending from Europe through Russia east to Japan and one of two known species in the genus Epipogium – the other, E. roseum has a wide distribution throughout the tropical regions of the world. It was first discovered in the UK in 1854 by Mrs W. Anderton near Tedstone Delamere and in 1876 nr Ludlow. The Oxfordshire plants were first noted in 1923
The name derived from Epi (on) and pogon (a beard or lip). In the literature I have the following diverse list of alternatives appears…there may be others. No-one seemed quite sure of where to put it in the scheme of things. The first record I can find is from Siberia (1747)
1. Satyrium epipogium L. (1753)
2. Orchis aphylla F.W. Schmidt (1791)
3. Epipactis epipogium (L.) All. (1789)
4. Limodorum epipogium (L.) Sw. (1799)
5. Epipogium aphyllum Sw (1814)
6. Epipogium gmelinii Rich. (1817)
7. Serapias epigogium (L.) Steud. (1821)
8. Epipogium epipogium (L.) H. Karst. (1881)
- Epipogium generalis E.H.L. Krause (1905)