Since the season is upon us I thought I would put up a few orchid posts – a way of engendering a personal sense of optimism…
Each year, here on the hill, I find I am fooled by spring. Where we live at 450m altitude on slightly acid soils nothing ‘florally’ is happening when it is exploding elsewhere. It is easy to forget about flowers for other things are so distracting – the birdsong is something that fills me with that ‘good to be alive’ feeling. On Easter Monday morning Lois nudged me (none too gently) at 6.30am to gloat that she had just heard the nightingales this year: in fact I had heard them nearer the coast two days previously but they are not deemed to be ‘ours’ and so not count. Then, later this month ‘our’ orioles will return and so will the bee-eaters to their burrows in an old quarry on the hill opposite.
Just a few mornings ago whilst in the garden I glanced skywards to see first one silhouette and then another two as three short-toed eagles (in Italian Biancone – ‘big white ones) high above the house made their way along the valley to the Alto Piano (high plain) of Alfina a dry expanse of steppe-like vegetation that affords them the snakes they feed on. No, I still cannot believe it – it is not something to take for granted as a kid I dreamed of seeing so many of these ‘rare’ birds.
To get a first dose of ‘orchidiocy’ for this season we headed off to Terni. an industrial city that sits at the gateway to the Sibillini and some wonderful limestone hills. The first task is always to negotiate a tortuous urban road system that evolved and was never designed to reach a windswept cemetery behind which rises a scrub-filled hill.
There, I photographed my choice of a myriad orchid faces of a highly variable species called the Tyrrhenian Ophrys (Ophrys tyrrhenica). It is one of a number of species thought to have arisen from crossing and back-crossing of various Ophrys and often included under the umbrella term of Ophrys arachnitiformis (literally spider –like). Often the orchids in this group are incredibly variable – a sign of them not having ‘settled down’ in a genetic niche.
Just a week or so later another ‘local’ orchid flowers there – the Hornet Ophrys (Ophrys crabronifera) – another insect mimic flowers but in slightly different spots. Where they overlap the confusion of intermediates will keep any ‘orchidiot’ in raptures and one rewarding aspect of living near rich populations of single ‘species’ is that there is an increased likelihood of finding the more unusual variations such as the yellow (hypochromic) forms – deficient in both the red and blues anthocycanin pigments. Many Ophrys exhibit such flowers and two are included with this article.
The second city is Viterbo, this time in Lazio rather than Umbria. Rising high to the east of the city is the long-dead volcano of Mt Cimini, comprehensively covered in chestnut woods. Near the small community of Canepine there is some particularly venerable and well-kept chestnut woodland where, on an April day with clear blue skies, you can see carpets of magenta and yellow orchids – two forms of the same species, the Roman Orchid (Dactylorhiza romana) growing through the mossy banks of the understorey.
Now, there are far too many tales of disaster in the orchid world where man’s urge to cover the land with concrete has obliterated numerous colonies. However, here, for once there is an encouraging tale here. Modern cultivation practice with these chestnuts means that the grasses and other plants beneath the trees are scythed once in summer to keep the terrain clear: when chestnuts fall in autumn they can be literally ‘hoovered’ up with a giant vacuum cleaner. By this time orchids and other flowers are over and have set seed.
In spring, however, the under-storey is left untouched and the more competitive grasses do not grow – there is just a carpet of mosses with blue and white anemones (Anemone appennina). This proves to be an ideal habitat for a wide range of wild orchids – first to appear are the magenta/yellow (and intermediates) spikes of the Roman Orchid, which a few weeks later is replaced by another magenta/yellow combination of Early Purple orchids (Orchis mascula) and pale lemon Provence Orchids (Orchis provincialis)… in a quick flowering sequence after this there are butterfly orchids (Platanthera chlorantha), the Violet Limodore (Limodorum abortivum), Sword-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia)…and occasional red helleborine (C. rubra). It is a species rich habitat with butterflies like the Southern Festoon whose larvae devour the pale-flowered birthwort (Aristolochia pallens). This is a wood that really works… a managed, productive woodland with ancient chestnuts gnarled and hollowed by the centuries – still going strong.
I clutch at things like this – perhaps pathetically at times – but it fires the eternal optimism that keeps me on the path I have chosen.