Another wet day dawned in Rhodes though, with a weather eye firmly on the local forecasts, we would not find our orchid hunting too badly impaired by the elements. We made the decision to swap coasts today, and struck east for an olive grove that harbours a scattered population of the simply magnificent Ophrys colossaea.
The rain was still falling persistently when we arrived, so while the guests waited for it to ease I started to scout the grove beneath the shelter of my trusty travel umbrella, a piece of essential equipment that’s done me sterling service in Amazonian rain-forests and now, more incongruously, in the Mediterranean. I was pleased to find some good examples of O.colossaea in bloom, including one plant in particular – a pale and unusual variety that abhored the usual warm chocolate and pink tones of its kind.
Many Serapias bergonii tongue orchids were to be found beneath the olive trees and, here and there, more spikes of the chequerboard-flowered O.rhodia, a species we’d last seen in the evening of our first day on the island. I had anticipated many more Pyramidal Orchids Anacamptis pyramidalis here too, including white-flowered plants, as these had been numerous the previous year, but this year they were all still in tight bud.
While Yiannis and the group searched for other flowering plants at the head of the nearby beach I was a little distracted by Crested Larks at the edge of the sandy track that led to the shore, and whilst watching them I noticed the familiar form of Ophrys flower spikes growing in the verge at the edge of a vast puddle. Some careful footwork avoided wet feet and, once I was a little closer, I found more O.rhodia and a single flowering Ophrys calypso.
The tracks to our usual riverside site for the latter species were too muddy and slippery to risk taking the vehicles down, so we elected to walk in, picking our way carefully along them. The last time I’d visited this site the river was almost entirely absent, leaving a large stony plain just beneath the flat riverbank on which the orchids flourished. This year was a very different proposition indeed.
The river was a sheet of briskly flowing water that overlapped much of the riverbank itself, the abnormally high water level revealed by the sight of several S.bergonii forlornly rising from the water itself. I wondered what such prolonged submersion could possibly mean for their tubers – the strange weather of the past weeks and months was wreaking havoc with the flowering season.
The sun, by this point, had burned off the cloud that started the day, and we had no further use of waterproofs and umbrellas for the rest of the day. Lunch was taken at a site we visit annually – a junction of tracks in an otherwise unremarkable area of countryside, a mosaic of surrounding fields and groves of fruit trees. Appearances can be deceiving, though, as the immediate surroundings are bursting with orchids – and other flowers besides, including the poppy-red Persian buttercup Ranunculus asiaticus.
Amongst a scattered population of S.carica was another unusual variety, a single plant that eschewed the usual burgundy tones for a rich, creamy ivory colour instead. Nearby were many flowering O.heldreichii and, amongst them, single Man Orchid Orchis anthropophora and a clump of Pink Butterfly Orchid A.papilionacea.
A nearby olive grove looked promising, with many stands of S.carica growing lushly amongst the trees. I was, if I was honest, hoping to find another white example, but instead stumbled across a small population of a new Serapias for the week, Serapias parviflora, a diminutive and shy species that nestled deep within the surrounding grass.
Olive groves were to be our final destination of the day, albeit one that was neither easy to approach nor, at first glance, remotely promising. The stony tracks that crisscrossed the area sported many large puddles we had to weave our way around but, in the end, deep water that swallowed our path entirely meant we had to abandon the vehicles at the roadside and continue the last approach on foot.
The olive grove in question had, to our horror, been ploughed, the earth around the trees completely turned over with only the very bases of the trees themselves remaining, in some instances, untouched. Where, the previous year, we had found swathes of orchids, this year there was just raw, churned soil. We persevered, having come this far, and in due course that diligence was rewarded with the discovery of first Ophrys attaviria and then many Ophrys blitopertha.
Both species were as plain as the earlier O.colossea and O.calypso had been gaudy and colourful but, when examined closely, they had a subtle and pleasing charm nonetheless. We stayed here for a good while, searching for more examples of their kind, bringing our daily tally of species to a respectable 14, with a good haul of new species amongst them.
NB – I should be leading the Orchid Odyssey tour in Rhodes for Greenwings this week – due to the coronavirus outbreak that’s been regretfully postponed for 2020. Instead, I’d like to invite you all to join me on a virtual orchid-hunting tour there, with daily posts throughout the week. I hope you enjoy them.