Friday, February 4, 2011

The early orchids

Fan-lipped orchid
We have several of species of orchids in the Maltese islands. The best time to see many of them in flower is in March but some species flower earlier or later than that and to see all of them one needs to look for them throughout the flowering season.

From a botanical point of view I prefer to think of the year as starting in September which is the month when we usually get the first substantial rains after summer. 

The earliest orchid to flower is thus the autumn ladies tresses which is in flower as early as October and November. 

This is a very small innocuous plant with white or pale green flowers growing in a spiral around a vertical spike. It is a rare species which I have not seen for a number of years. In Maltese it is known as ħajja u mejta meaning ‘dead and alive’ a name generally given to all orchids because they are characterised by having two tubers one of which is swollen and the other shrivelled.

In December one can find the Cretan blue orchid (dubbiena bikrija). This was formerly known as the brown orchid and was considered as a very variable species. Some botanists now believe that this is not one species but three each of which has distinguishing characteristics but one needs to examine them carefully to be able to tell them apart.

Last weekend while taking pictures at Wardija I found the fan-lipped orchid (orkida ħamra) and very soon I expect to find an early flowering species, the scented bug orchid (orkida tfuħ). Soon after that another species which in recent years was renamed will appear - the conical orchid (orkida tat-tikek). This was formerly known as the milky orchid.

The last orchid to flower is the common pyramidal orchid (orkida piramidali) which can be seen in flower in April and May when the surrounding vegetation has already started to dry up and shrivel. 

The changing nomenclature of this group of plants can sometimes be very confusing and frustrating but this should not put people off from enjoying their beauty. This is the best time to start looking for orchids and to start a photographic collection of all the local species. 

All one has to do is to dedicate a few enjoyable hours every week to wander in the countryside. Orchids can be difficult to find but once you see one plant you will start seeing others in the vicinity and then you start wondering how you could have missed seeing them earlier. 

This article was published in The Times on 12.01.11

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