An Orchid Odyssey

Sawfly Orchid Ophrys tenthredinifera: one of the most widespread species in Extremadura 

Orchids are compelling. Even the most botanically-challenged birders will stop to admire one in flower. Simply being an orchid commands attention. The name is instantly recognisable, sounds special - although how many will know that it comes from the Greek word for testicle, thanks to the pair of tubers that many orchids have underground? The flower itself is attractive, usually held aloft on an upright stem, gorgeous and intriguing to those curious enough to get on their knees for a closer look. Beyond their appearance are fascinating life-histories and ecologies. They have an association with fungi which provide nutrients and sometimes have highly-specific pollinating agents. The bee orchids are sexual traps that lure young male bees by pretending to look (and smell) like female bees.

A long wet and mild winter for growth and a long hot dry summer for dormancy is what suits the orchids growing in Extremadura, with almost all flowering in the lengthening days of spring. Not including a very localised autumn species, orchids can be seen in flower over an amazing seven months in Extremadura, from January to July. This means that for both the enthusiast as well as the curious, there is the scope to look for orchids for more than half of the year. It is an odyssey that will lead one to a truly wonderful variety of habitats and locations. This year, with the pandemic shutting down my usual springtime work, I set about to explore beyond my usual haunts, with orchids as my special quest.

Giant Orchid Himantoglossum robertianum: the earliest to flower

The first orchids in flower, from mid-January onwards, are the appropriately named Giant Orchids Himantoglossum robertianum. These magnificent and robust plants, mainly occur in southern Extremadura. The colony that I often see first of all grows in an unforgiving, litter-strewn verge beside a main road. Many orchids are pioneer species, that move into open terrain. There they can be at risk from grazing animals, or, in their absence, the gradual process of ecological succession, when they became shaded out by woody plants. 

Typical habitat for the scarce Ophrys dyris

It is all about balance - and geology for those species (the majority) which have a preference for limey soils. Exploring a hillside in Cáceres province in February for the first time, the presence of the scrubby Kermies Oak advertised limestone. Spread between the bustles of this oak was a large colony of Ophrys dyris, especially below straggly Wild Rosemary.  

Ophrys dyris

This is a rather rare species, which I had only seen at one other site beforehand. I also devoted time in early spring to wander along the paths close to home, to be rewarded with some of the densest clumps of Champagne Orchids Anacamptis champagneuxii that I had ever seen.

Champagne Orchid Anacamptis champagneuxii

The geology of most of Extremadura is quartzites, slates and granites, leading to acidic conditions. Limestone areas are mainly in the southern half of the region, as sierras rising from plains, affording me quite magnificent views. 
A view from a sierra in Badajoz province

They tend to mainly traditionally-farmed with old, sometimes abandoned olive groves, small disused lime quaries, open woodland and grazing goats. 

An amazing show of Pink Butterfly Orchids Anacamptis papilionacea

The variety and sheer density of orchids can be extraordinary, especially in late March, from flamboyant Pink Butterfly Orchids Anacamptis papilionacea (in their hundreds) to the tiny and easily overlooked Bumblebee Orchid Ophrys bombylifora

The tiny Bumblebee Orchid Ophrys bombylifora

On a walk on one such hillside, I saw for my first time in Extremadura, Man Orchid Aceras anthropophorum, with its cluster of tiny figurines, growing beside the much commoner Naked Man Orchid Orchis italica, bearing pink-coloured flowers with an appendage hanging between the "legs" of its minature men. 

Man Orchid Aceras anthropophorum: a very localised species in Extremadura

The aptly-named Naked Man Orchid Orchis italica

As spring progresses, the dominant group of orchids in open habitats become the Serapias, or tongue orchids, One of these, the Green-flowered Tongue Orchid Serapias perez-chiscanoi, was first described in science just over thirty years ago and for a long time was thought only to occur in Extremadura. However, colonies have recently been found in neighbouring areas in Portugal and Toledo province.

The near-endemic Green-flowered Tongue Orchid Serapias perez-chiscanoi

There is a wonderful site for it close to our home, on the plains near Trujillo. Here in late April it can be found growing beside the much more widespread Common Tongue Orchid Serapias lingua as well as numerous Bug Orchids Anacamptis coriophora. Confinement by lockdown last year led to me spending much more time in the our own small olive grove where I found the Small-flowered Tongue Orchid Serapias parviflora. It was in flower again this year.

Small-flowered Tongue Orchid Serapias parviflora in our garden

April and May see the appearance of the shade-tolerant orchids in woodland, especially deciduous woodland. Timing is everything. There is a small window of opportunity to see orchids at their best, which one can easily miss by a week. And this will vary from year to year, depending also on variations in rainfall and temperature. I often explore such woodland in the Villuercas Mountains in search for butterflies in late spring and thus catch just the tail-end of this orchid season. For some species this year, I timed it perfectly: discovering a vast colony of Barton's Orchid Dactylorhiza insularis, which has creamy-white flowers with little orange spots, in a patch of woodland I regularly go to, but always in early summer. 

Barton's Orchid Dactylorhiza insularis which loves shady deciduous woodland

In another area of woodland, which is a favouite of mine for butterflies, I found a colony of the strange Violet Limodore Limodoro abortivum, a parasitic orchid with no chlorphyll which in dry years will even flower and produce seed underground. 

Violet Limodore Limodoro abortivum

In the same area, two months later in early July, my spring odyssey culminated with encountering a colony of Summer Lady's Tresses Spiranthes aestivalis, a small orchid with a tworl of delicate white flowers growing amongst the boulders of a mountain stream. 

Summer Lady's Tresses Spiranthes aestivalis

Habitat for the Summer Lady's Tresses Spiranthes aestivalis

Just how many species of orchids there are in Europe, or for that matter just in Extremadura, is a subject of fierce debate. The taxonomy of many, especially the bee orchid and tongue orchid groups is murky indeed. There is a big gulf between the "splitters" who base their recognition of species largely morphological differences and which creature is involved in pollinating them, and the "lumpers" who consider such differences well within the boundaries of natural variation. This gives a range in Extremadura from 40 species to well over 60, depending on your school of thought. This year I have photographed 31 taxa, which was not an exhaustive effort. I prioritised going to new areas or visiting sites at new times, so I missed several species that I regularly see. That being said, there remains a handful of species, for which timing still confounded me.......there is always next year. 

We are proud of our orchids in Extremadura, there is even an Orchid Interpretation Centre at Almaráz, close to the hotspot for orchids in northern Extremadura. 


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