Monday 24 March 2014

Fond farewell

I had only a couple of hours this morning before I had to leave for the airport.  I spent the first of them among the orchids on the slope below the cabin.  Ophrys orchids are one of the best things in the world.  Among David Attenborough’s prolific outputs is a series called Attenborough’s Ark in which he chooses his favourite and most extraordinary animals, those that he would save on an ark if there were a cataclysmic disaster.  Ophrys would be in my ark.  First, they are so pleasing to look at.  The neat spike of flowers is a work of architectural excellence, and each floral decoration is full of character.  Two side petals to suggest ears; the pollinia or small glands are a pair of eyes; and the lip is a nose or a whole body with arms and legs if you fancy.

Then there is the pattern and texture of the lip.  It seems so velvety and soft and it contrasts perfectly with the almost plastic-looking speculum (the smooth bit in the middle).  I think this is part of the appeal: instead of being part of the natural world, the flower looks as though it is artificial, even though it is not.

All this is very attractive, but we haven’t even considered the amazing biology behind it.  When I first heard about it I couldn’t believe it: it does what?  It turns out that the flowers are not like this to please me but rather to fool a male wasp into mating with them.  All the colours and textures are there to mimic a female insect.  The visual and sensual cues are supplemented with pheromones.  All this is so convincing that passing males will eagerly mount the lip and get the pollinia stuck to their head.  They will carry these to another orchid flower if they try to have go on that one too.

The Mediterranean is the centre of diversity of Ophrys: there are many more species here than further north (only four in Britain).  How many more is a matter of fierce debate.  The trend, as in most plants and animals, has been one of recognising more and more species.  This has been taken to the extreme by Pierre Delforge’s book on Orchids of Europe, which lists 251 Ophrys species.  If you flick through the pages you will find dozens of seemingly identical plants all given different names and separated by rather inconsequential features.  To me, some of the photos contradict the descriptions and keys and they do not make a strong case for separating all the entities he has named.  He has described even more species since.  Other people have found this approach too much, and they have produced genetic evidence to suggest that it would be more sensible to recognise only a dozen or so species, each of which is more readily separable from the others but has many local forms, some of which are produced by ancient or modern hybridisation.


On my hillside I found myself in agreement with the lumpers.  I looked at the amount of yellow around the edge of the lip, the shape of the speculum, and its colour.  I could see as much variation here, sometimes even within the same plant, as there seemed to be between some of the Delforgian species.  I was happy to call everything Ophrys fusca, apart from a couple of lutea that were not quite in flower.

I went up to the limestone rocks above for a last time, past a couple of Orchis conica that I had overlooked.  The Iris planifolia was now gone over, but Mediterranean Spurge Euphorbia characias, a plant that I associate very much with holidays, was in flower.

The pretty little Veronica cymbalaria, one of the week’s common plants, was here too, and I found a not too flighty Spanish Festoon and Provencal Hairstreak.  And with that it was time to stuff as much ham and biscuits as I could into my luggage and go back to Britain.

A final word of thanks to the Departamento de Biología Vegetal at Universidad de Málaga, and the publishers who have made the floras (one each for eastern and western Andalucia) available online for anyone to download for free.  Both are extensively illustrated, the western volumes with line drawings of every species, and the eastern set with beautiful photographs, making them much easier to use than most keys.  Does anywhere else in Europe have such a useful and readily available identification resource for visiting or resident botanists?  Congratulations once again to Andalucia on taking the lead.

I also need to mention Flora Iberica, which was very helpful once I got back to an internet connection.  Like the Andalusian floras it is available online, thanks to the Real Jardín Botánico.  I cannot praise highly enough the public spirit of these institutions in making works available so that anyone can enjoy and appreciate the wonderful plants of Spain.

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