Feeling jaded after a long, cold winter we took off to Gargano in mid April of this year 2010 – on a weekend for me the photographing plants and for Lois walking and renovating her normal tan. One word legislated against us both – rain. I dripped continually as I watched the water collect on orchids and flatten wild flowers. But the consolation was meeting up with Italian friends – other ‘orchidiots’ who are highly knowledgeable, enthusiastic, great company and as far from orchid ‘nerds’ as one could wish. So our personal thanks go to Leonardo Battisti, Stefano Doglio, Claudio del Fuoco (author of by far the best book available on Orchids of Gargano) and Matteo Perilli for their generosity, company and knowledge of places we had not seen before.
The Gargano peninsula has long been a passion ever since, in the 1970’s, I noticed that so many of the pictures in Othmar Danesch’s book on Ophrys had “Gargano” in the label. I have lost count of the number of articles I have written to feed a near-obsession with this natural limestone rockery, a place that that has drawn me back 30 times…not just for orchids but for scenery, numerous other plants, insects and birds. My first visit was in the spring of 1979 where I travelled from Cyprus to Sicily and then drove up through the ‘toe’, around the ‘instep’ and across to Manfredonia. Since then, visits have often directly involved leading trips, both of our own design and for various companies and, it must be said, ‘indirectly’ for those others who have simply ripped off our routes… there is a lot of that around but we kept quiet about the best! In fact, when I totted up the time spent wandering in Gargano, to my surprise there was a cumulative total of some forty three weeks of prime-time orchid season spread over a period of nigh on 30 years. Now we can get there in a morning’s hurtle of 4 -5 hours down the autostradas which is wonderful.
Gargano is often cited as an orchid ‘hotspot’ and it is easy to see why this has come about for, to all extents and purposes, Gargano is an island in botanical if not strict geographic terms. In fact, it was once separated from the Italian mainland by the Adriatic Sea and then the channel slowly silted up to create the fertile plain of Foggia. Geologically, it owes much to the islands off the coast of what is now Croatia: a tectonic plate slipped a bit and moved it towards Italy. It is a lump of limestone with fertile plains near the coast and, at much higher altitude, stony ground cultivated at a basic level since it is impossible to work in any other way: grazing is mainly by cows that crop high and thus leave stems to flower. There is a wonderful central forest with huge ancient beech trees (Foresta Umbra), well-maintained by the Corpo Forestale, where in spring there is an under-story of blue anemones (Anemone blanda) white narcissus (Narcissus poeticus), yellow orchids (Dactylorhiza romana) and a few paeonies (Peonia mascula)…and many others.
We have always wandered off the beaten tracks to ascertain where the best populations of orchids are to be found in the most photogenic of sites. In fact although I thought that we had covered most places and tracks there is always more to be discovered as we found when we visited just a short while ago…a turning we had overlooked that led to an amazing orchid site.
Over the years I have had numerous requests for advice on when and where to go and, depending upon altitude, I usually suggest visiting from late March until the latter half of April – into May for a few of the specialities such as Lacaita’s Ophrys (Ophrys lacaitae). If you are going to spend time on the heights and the central part of the peninsula between Monte St Angelo and San Giovanni Rotondo (where most of the endemics can be found) the last two weeks in April is productive in most years. Here, as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, an early spring can throw things out by a couple of weeks…the capriciousness of orchids is part of the challenge.
We have a preference for staying either in Peschici (the Elisa, a small hotel near the sea) or Vieste since they both have delightful historic centres with narrow streets and ancient buildings – other places are just slightly nearer the orchids but not so much that it matters. In fact, near Peschici (and towards Vieste) there is at least one local rarity –the horned ophrys (Ophrys scolopax ssp cornuta) familiar from Greece but rare here in Gargano. There are particularly good populations of the Apulian Ophrys, (Ophrys fuciflora ssp apulica) the largest and most handsome of the Late Spider (Ophrys fuciflora’) relations – ready to be discovered in the surrounding scrub. The lip is large, elongated and variably patterned with intensely coloured tepals…it is a beauty.
If you travel along the northern coast, west from Peschici, you might find one of the few colonies of another member of the ‘fuciflora’ clan, the small-patterned Ophrys (Ophrys fuciflora ssp parvimaculata) in north-facing woods near the lagoons. This taxon has a reduced ’apron’ — the parvi (small) bit of the maculata (pattern) near the base of the speculum and, what a surprise, it has variable flowers. Some years, however, the cows that graze the woods will have been there before you: it all depends on the dynamic of the seasons – winter and how long it goes on affects the time when animals are moved to higher pastures to graze.
From Peschici I always take the road that climbs up through the Foresta Umbra through beechwoods to an area on the heights of the pensinsula near Monte St Angelo where my favourite Ophrys – the Siponto orchid (Ophrys sipontensis) grows in small numbers with an astonishing variety of orchids and other plants including another Gargano speciality : the archipelago orchid (Ophrys archipelagi)now regarded as another member of the extensive clan of Ophrys x arachnitiformis mentioned previously in this blog
With regard to the Siponto orchid I still cannot believe the luck I had in April 1979 when, on first visiting the pensinsula early in April, I simply followed the old railway line down on the plain near Manfredonia because a map showed it cut through the limestone. I just ‘happened upon’, as I have often seem to do, spikes of the Siponto Ophrys (Ophrys sipontensis) in several quarries. Those are now used as rubbish dumps full of the ubiquitous white electrical goods and illegally dumped asbestos sheets…but there are still some sites on the plain early in the season.
In fact, last year in mid March we encountered thousands of spikes of Ophrys sipontensis in a site revealed to us by Italian friends. This is one of the endemic or near-endemic orchids on the peninsula and it takes its name from the ancient Golfo di Siponto, that part of the coast that extends from Manfredonia southwards.
Go here for Part two with more Gargano treasures and some links to websites/photographs of the best local photographers who are documenting the area.