An aspect of our Italian life is that one never quite knows what a day might entail. This can be a good thing or a not-so-good-thing: this is about one of those good days a day to delight any orchid aficionado.
It started with a short email two days ago from my friend and fellow photographer Pier Luigi Pacetti regarding a rendezvous near his home and then a trip into the beechwoods on Mt Amiata with fellow ‘orchidiot’ Mauro Contorni. Needless to say, I am deeply grateful to Pier Luigi and to Mauro for their generosity and friendship.
Mauro knows those montane woods like no-one else and had been visiting old sites where the Ghost Orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) had been recorded over the years: he had found some flowering stems.
When writing this I noticed that the essay (Ghost Tales) I wrote in January of this year, has recently been receiving a good clutch of visits for this is the time it appears. It deals in detail with this very rare species, its ecology and biology and my infrequent encounters with it over a period of three decades and more.
There is not much more to add in a botanical sense but I can at least share a few images with anyone who might be interested and note a few points about location and the plants.
The site was near a picnic station – and that is not giving anything away for the beechwoods on Mt Amiata, the highest mountain in Tuscany (1738m – 5702ft) are vast and full of orchids such as bird’s nest (Neottia nidus-avis) and various helleborines (Epipactis sp) that confuse…
The Epipogium plants were growing in moderate shade, in deep beech litter on the side of a gulley that would have carried a torrent in winter – especially this last winter (2009/10) when it rained very heavily. It is generally held that enough rain at the right time is necessary to allow the formation of buds of flowering stems on a rhizome. An ensuing dry period can then well cause these to abort. One stem had elongated to nearly 20cm and carried four flowers: smaller flowering stems (four had just pushed through the leaf litter and no more and those flowers were beginning to go over.
I had hoped to see plants last week in another locale where I saw them two years ago – it seemed, that if they did not flower this year they never would. Sadly, last year when I visited the site it looked as if it had been ploughed. In Italy that is usually a sign of marauding wild boar but, in this case near a seasonal stream, it might well have been cattle that came to drink, churning the ground to a mire…this year nothing.
It is always very difficult to discern the plants for they match the colours of the beech litter perfectly and, in the low light, you have to get ‘your eye in’. Ghost orchid is an apt vernacular name for, in fact, with the plants I have just photograph it was difficult to spot them again if one’s gaze was even momentarily averted.
At close-quarters the flowers reveal their delicately form and colour with a pleasant scent: most European orchids have the lip downwards because the ovary incorporates a 180° twist – they are said to be resupinate. The flowers of Epipogium have the crinkled, purple flecked lip uppermost: ie. non-resupinate
Being camouflaged in this fashion has always made plants difficult to find and if you add to this the sporadic flowering in known sites then it is only possible to create reliable records from frequent repeat visits by people who know what they are looking for. Unfortunately, in one of its UK sites tramping from those who did not possibly contributed to its demise.
It is a mistake to think of this orchid as having suffered from the depradations of cultivation – it grows only in mature woodland (beech or pine) where the rhizomes thread the humus. I would contend that, in spite of a wide distribution in the northern hemisphere it has always been rare. When I stood back and looked it seemed that this lovely beechwood with its stately trees and thick leaf litter, seemingly presented so many ideal spots. And yet here were a few flowering stems (one of any size) from the same plant and nothing else. But then who knows just what was out of sight beneath that leaf litter…next year, maybe we shall see – or maybe not. Ghosts are like that.
© Paul Harcourt Davies August 2010