The first week of March, in rural France, feels like an unlikely time and place in which to be orchid-hunting. The village in which I’ve been staying is still firmly in thrall to winter, with chimneys spooling thin tendrils of wood-smoke into an aching blue sky from early in the morning, and faded shutters for the most part remaining firmly closed except on the sunward side of the houses. The perfume of beech and oak hangs in the air.
I have been exploring the village surrounds a little as the days have gone by. The trees remain in bud, and there are no wildflowers to be seen. This may only be the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees, but winter still grips the village and the countryside around it. Yet the signs of spring are there, if I look closely enough – there is a promise of orchids at my feet. On the riverbanks, alongside the surging white water of the river that rushes from a gorge into the valley in which the village huddles, I find glossy green rosettes of leaves. They are, I think, Lady Orchids, though I cannot be sure. Some of the leaves seem too narrow and straplike. Perhaps there are other species here too. I will need to be patient, to wait and see.
If I hope to find orchids in flower at this early juncture of the year, I need to head southeast to the coast. A northerly wind buffets my car as I drive, making it difficult to chart a straight course. High-sided vehicles weave dangerously on the autoroute ahead of me. My destination is a small patch of undeveloped land on the edge of a large tidal lagoon, sandwiched between a sprawl of weather-beaten, neglected chalets, and saline flats on which Greater Flamingos, incongruously, sweep the water in a loose, pink, feeding huddle.
The objects of this expedition are barely less unexpected – for here, rising magnificently from the scoured and bleached grass, are hundreds upon hundreds of Giant Orchids, Himantoglossum robertianum. Some flowerspikes are knee high, set upon thick, fleshy stems; others have snapped under the weight of their flowers and the strength of the ceaseless wind. Most have flowers of pale, glaucous pink – like a number of European orchids, each individual floret has an anthropomorphic, vaguely humanoid quality – though these are rounded and thickset, as if cast from melted candlewax or clay. Compared to the delicacy of Lady or Military Orchids, the Giant Orchids are golems.
Yet not all are pink – some flowers are deepest purple; others are much paler, almost entirely white; and a very few of them sport shocking, vivid gooseberry-green fringes. They are simply magnificent, colossi by the standards of terrestrial orchids, pharos on the very edge of the Mediterranean.
I spend hours with them, battling the conditions. The sun is unremittingly bright, and the flowers themselves are in constant motion, vibrating and swaying as the wind thrums around us. It’s hard to tear myself away, but leave I must. I need to get home, to ply the fire with logs and put some heat in the fabric of the building and my bones.