Monday 24th June 2013

An orgy of orchids

Following the surprisingly successful butterfly day on Saturday, when despite unseasonably low temperatures and intermittent rain, I managed to add a further three species to my 2013 butterfly list, bringing the total up to 43, yesterday and today could be described as nothing less than a total washout.

Never one to easily give up on the possibility of finding butterflies, I drove back from Belgium via one of my very favourite butterfly areas, in the Eifel region of Germany, to the south-west of Cologne. This plateau harbours a rich mix of chalk grassland, damp river valleys and extensive forests, and it is the extraordinary juniper-covered hillsides around the village of Alendorf that I find particularly attractive. Wild juniper bushes have become rare in recent decades (in fact, in the Netherlands the old juniper bushes are failing to produce any young saplings), but here in the Eifel there are extensive stands of these bushes, and in the shelter they provide, a wide range of chalky grassland plants flourish.

These slopes would, given more favourable conditions, have yielded up several extra species for my butterfly list, but with threatening low cloud, drizzle and incredibly low temperatures, there was no chance whatsoever. I often pride myself on being able to find at least one butterfly roosting either on a grass stem or on a flowerhead, but today even that was out of the question.

Amid this disappointment, there was one redeeming factor: the Eifel provides an almost unrivalled habitat for orchids, and within less than one hour, I had found six species. The most prolific was the Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which was growing in profusion on all the natural grassland areas I visited. I even managed to locate one example of the rare white form among the much more frequent purple flower spikes.

Fragrant Orchids on the chalky slopes

A rare white individual of the Fragrant Orchid

The second commonest species was the Common Twayblade, Neottia ovata, with its two very prominent rounded leaves at the base of the stem.

The Common Twayblade, with its two prominent rounded leaves near the base

Far more striking than the Twayblade was another species of orchid growing with it, the Fly Orchid, Ophrys insectifera. The flowers of this species engage in a form of sexual deception, both visually resembling a fly and releasing a scent that mimics that released by certain female insects. When male insects pick up this scent, they “pseudo-copulate” with the flower, during which act the pollen of the orchid is deposited on the insect, which then flies on to attempt to mate with another flower, unwittingly passing on the pollen as it does so. Apparently they give up after several attempts, but by then the pollinating has already been completed.

A Fly Orchid awaiting an unsuspecting randy fly

The next species I located was the Greater Butterfly Orchid, Platanthera chlorantha, three examples of which were growing together between the junipers. Separating this from the Lesser Butterfly Orchid, P. bifolia, is difficult, and I cannot guarantee that my identification is correct.

A Butterfly Orchid, most probably Greater

Is this a Greater or a Lesser Butterfly Orchid?

Nearby were a few Spotted Orchids, Dactylorhiza maculata, which I was a little surprised to see growing here on this chalky grassland as I tend to associate them more with acid bogs, but there can be little doubt as to their identity.

The Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza maculata

All of the orchids so far recorded were open country species, but it should not be forgotten that some species inhabit dark, shady areas, and just before leaving, I noticed a number of whitish flower spikes in a ticket near the road, a small colony of another species of orchid, the White Helleborine, Cephalanthera damasonium.

The ghostly flowers of the White Helleborine

In the absence of butterflies, thank God for Orchids!

The juniper-covered slopes surrounding the village of Alendorf

Leave a Reply