To get to the best areas on Gargano you have to walk off the beaten track and through countryside rich in wild irises – both the dwarf yellow Iris lutescens (Iris pseudopumila) and the taller, scented, Iris bicapitata (mainly dark blue but also light blue, yellow and white and now regarded as a separate species) a Gargano endemic. But believe me this is no chore when, in dozens of ancient, stone-walled and stone-strewn fields between Monte St Angelo and San Giovanni Rotondo, for example, you can find literally thousands of Ophrys and great drifts of Orchis: pink butterfly (Orchis papilionacea) and green-winged (Orchis morio). This is a rich area for hybrids, normally infrequent with Ophrys but here particularly frequent perhaps given both the density of orchid plants and their pollinators and also their isolation. This latter, I suspect might have encouraged the evolution of hymenopteran (small solitary bees/wasps) pollinators that are not quite as ‘fussy’ as those in other places.
For those unfamiliar with the genus Ophrys these insect-mimics have evolved in conjunction with their pollinators – small wasps that they attract with a complex cocktail of scents that mimic the pheromone produced by the female. It is not an exact copy but contains some of the ‘super stimulants’ The pollinators, hopelessly deluded and aroused then attempt to copulate with the lip of the flower: the shape is right and even the hairs on the lip are strategically placed to delight…They carry off the pollen bundles (pollinia) to the next flower where they are fooled again…heyho, that’s men for you. The act of ‘pseudocopulation’ is not easy to photograph for it seems that many species of male wasps do not get active at temperatures much below 17℃ and the action can be extremely speedy – very much of the ‘wham, bang, thank-you-mam’ variety. I have sat and waited in fields camera positioned, turned my back and its happened…the best shot I have is of a half-dead insect doing its best…but don’t tell! This year it is going to be different…
I have tried to make this account something more than an annotated list of orchids and to give a feel for this remarkable place. The fact is that anyone (with a bit of determination and love of orchids) can find plants in Gargano, even at roadsides. ‘Freedom of information’ of localities is great in an ideal world but I have to respect confidences. Just last year I was reminded by my Italian friends that they have problems in Italy with collectors from ‘outside’ who dig up plants with a rapacity they would never dream of showing in their own, conservation-conscious countries. Yet, put these folk on an Italian hillside and Dr Jekyll transforms into Mr Hyde and they go berserk with a trowel. What is hard for true nature lovers to realise is that there is a collecting mania (some say it is a mental condition) where individuals ‘must’ have a plant or a bird’s egg…in the same way some crave a piece of art and cannot live without it, damn the impact. It is essentially a ‘male thing’…northern European collectors seem to be the worst offenders. More than once my ‘generosity’ has caught me out but I am happy to respond to emails where ‘bona-fides’ can be established.
Gargano is a now national park and somewhere where protection is essential, yet nature already has several excellent systems in place. For example, where most orchids on the uplands grow the soil is what you might call ‘impoverished’ – limestone-strewn with little humus and few plant competitors. It is difficult to clear but, human endeavour being what is, this can be done – as endless miles of stone walls, centuries old, show. They are built from cleared stones – well, you have to do something with them.
Unfortunately, fires regularly create havoc in Gargano. In southern Italy and Greece they are often started deliberately to create areas where development is then ‘permitted’ via a few ‘back-handers’ to local politicos. The flowering of orchids and various bulbous plants in the subsequent spring can be exceptional when that competing vegetation has been eliminated. Fires are often a summer hazard when those small tubers are well beneath the soil, already baked hard by the sun.
The most common grazing animal in Gargano is the cow – lovely soft-grey animals of an ancient species with large horns. They crop at greater height than sheep or goats in open pastures and through the forests and, in the upper pastures, you will often find orchid plants just a few centimetres tall flowering in late April after having been munched as rosettes when buds were still safely concealed and the flowering stem had not begun to extend.
It is one joy to seek out single plants of rarities as many of us have done and another to experience the absurd joy of walking in a natural rockery where you could not begin to count the orchid plants – man orchid (Orchis anthrophorum) pink butterfly (O. papilionacea), green-winged (O. morio), few-flowered O. pauciflora and the occasional milky orchid (O. lactea) amongst the myriad orchid spikes thrusting up between stones.
Many of us need that injection of renewed life that a spring brings and we are no exception. In fact, in 2008, after another hard winter we escaped again to Gargano to check things out before the year’s trip. The prime intention on this whistle-stop trip was for Lois to take a walk she had ‘aided and abetted’ but never in fact done, since hers was usually the role of meeting a group, sated with orchids, at the end.
We have walked in some superb places but there is nothing quite like this, ambling on top of the world at 700m altitude with views down to the sea and to the distant jetties at Manfredonia and the Golfo di Siponto beyond. The route takes one along ancient paths and past stone-walled fields with orchids the constant companions. Some Ophrys such as the sawfly (O. tenthredinfera) are everywhere, others such as The promontory orchid (Ophrys promontori) and the eyed orchid (Ophrys biscutella), two more Gargano specials, are more localised – presumably where colonies of their pollinators exist.
Intriguingly, slight changes in soils and in aspect bring different groups of orchids together and you might begin (foolishly) to get the impression you could understand how it all works – however delusional a proposition that may be.
An area like Gargano is sobering for it teaches such a lot about the innate variation in some orchids. European orchids receive far too much attention from folk who have little or no knowledge of nor, indeed, interest in any other plants (or animals). It is far too easy to lose perspective where names (an artificial construct) become an end in themselves and people soon begin to lose sight of relationships between orchids and a sense of proportion flies out of the window.
Too often, extreme forms of species are selected as ‘different’ and papers published in journals where ‘peer review’ of these would-be scientific papers is almost absent. Thus, every slight variation in pattern on an orchid lip seemingly heralds a new species and contributes nothing to understanding; instead it sustains a proliferation of names and creation of utter confusion. I was once very interested in orchid taxonomy (the genus Ophrys) but this trainspotting approach made me despair – the tide is turning and sanity returns: ‘lumpers’ are winning over ‘splitters’. There is still that unfinished monograph, so who knows…one day?
We probably have to accept that, with the genus Ophrys, things are ‘in transit’ because of the interplay between pollinator and orchid, both of which are evolving. Ergo, to ascribe names at specific level to some of these ephemeral entities is fraught with problems. The world of tropical orchids is not subject to the same scrutiny and naming species there is usually the province of professional taxonomists who have a sense of proportion with regard to orchids and other plants.
Over the years, we have explored most of the Gargano mountain tops in spring and, if you love mountain flowers, each few steps brings new joy with a riot of multi-coloured pansies, anemones, buttercups…within a very loose woodland of shrub-like downy oaks stunted by the harshness of baking summers and bitter, often snow-covered winters. This is an ancient landscape with ruined stone farms “masseria” and the conical protoypes of the “trulli’ found further south. These are set within a network of snaking stone walls built around depressions where animals have grazed over the millennia in natural pounds. The walls were built to rim ‘dolines’ – craters where erosion by water in the limstone beneath slowly etched out caverns whose roofs ultimately collapsed.
San Giovanni Rotondo, once a picturesque village, is now a nightmare of sprawling town I would recommend to no-one. It is choked with vast hotels and is the centre of the commercial ‘industry’ surrounding Padre Piu and his stigmata. Padre Piu died in 1968 and was canonised a few years ago – even though Pope John XXIII had thought him a fraud. However, The Catholic Church overlooked the cautionary letters (a familiar tale?) sent from his bishop at the time. Piu had a number of acolytes, all of them female and one, the daughter of a pharmacist who provided a supply of phenol. A request for this to her, in his own handwriting, exists.
Phenol (once known as carbolic acid) is a liquid that causes sores on the skin that do not heal readily (as a careless friend of mine found out in A-level practical chemistry also in 1968! ). Entirely coincidental of course, as is the fact that, when his corpse was exhumed a few years ago there were no signs of stigmata. Yes, a miracle: his hands had healed… With seven million visiting his tomb annually Piu is big business…More detail is given in a Times article by Richard Owen: (www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article2739751.ece)
I mention this because it reinforces the conflicting emotions I experience when standing on the heights of Monte Nero above San Giovanni Rotondo in one of the most delightfully flower-filled places I (or anyone I have taken there) have ever seen. Far below, dinky-toy coaches disgorge their endless streams of tiny ant-like pilgrims who face the lines of stalls of sellers of religious tat … It is another world but I know where I prefer to be – surrounded by reality, not idolatory, part of a glorious nature with thousands of wild irises, blue and purple anemones, white narcissus, yellow spikes of Roman orchid and a myriad cheekily-coloured faces of a local wild pansy. This, for me, is the true nature of ‘spiritual experience’ communing with nature – fading into the background and becoming insignificant.
If this lengthy post has stirred your interest then here are a few links to sites of friends mentioned at the beginning of this article who are either out and about in Gargano or visit regularly and are working to bring the treasures of this place to a wider appreciative audience…because they love it!
Leonardo Battista – is an excellent photographer of plants and other wildlife and also of his native land and its people: you will get a very good feel of Gargano from his evocative imagery.
Stefano Doglio – Has been a good friend since we met in 2000 I Gargano where he was researching and we have been in contact ever since. Stefan is a professional biologist whose research interests focus on amphibians in the Mediterranean and elsewhere but he is also a passionate and very knowledgeable naturalist and a first-rate photographer. He often posts his pictures on the forum Natura Mediterraneo (http://www.naturamediterraneo.com/)
Claudio Del Fuoco is a professional biologist who has spent years researching Gargano’s orchids – he is a first class photographer (beautiful shots of orchid pollination) and has written by far the best book on Gargano’s orchids: Orchidee del Gargano (2003) – text in Italian. It is published by the Biblioteca verde parc naz del gargano as one of their series of books, Claudio has also written another volume for the same series on the Foresta Umbra. He, too posts on Natura Mediterraneo (http://www.naturamediterraneo.com/)
Matteo Perilli – has amazingly sharp eyes for subtle differences in orchids: he is incessantly out in the field after work each day exploring Gargano and has posted his images on Flickr. Matteo works with a Lumex camera and gets stunning results – they make me wonder why I carry 20kg + of equipment. You will find many hybrids that have just not been depicted elsewhere and some lovely shots of insects both with and without orchids…