The autumn lady's-tresses, is an uncommon orchid that flowers in September or October a few weeks after the first heavy rains of the season. Its blooming coincides with the flowering of the autumn narcissus which in Maltese is known as narcis imwaħħar.
The inflorescence consists of small flowers growing spirally on a small vertical stalk. You need to look very carefully to spot the flowers as the stalk is often very short –sometimes not more than five centimeters high. You would also need to go to the right place at the right time. In Malta the autumn lady’s-tresses is restricted to rocky arid habitats known as garigue. The best places to find it are at Buskett and at Pembroke. In none of these localities is it common.
To make itself more elusive the autumn lady’s tresses, like other species of orchids, does not flower every year as its flowering is determined by rainfall.
Its scientific name is Spiranthes spiralis, a combination of two words one Greek and one Latin both of which mean a spiral.
The autumn lady’s-tresses is indigenous in the Mediterranean region. Thousands of years ago it migrated north where it occupied close-cropped grasslands overlying chalk or limestone, habitats. These habitats were created by early man by removing trees to provide suitable pasture land.
The autumn lady’s tresses is now found in most of Europe (except in the north), and east towards the Western Himalayas.
The species is nowhere common and is absent from many suitable habitats.
In Maltese the autumn’s lady’s tresses is known as ħajja u mejta a name given to many species of orchids. The name refers to the plants tubers which grow in pairs. While one tuber is large and full of nutrients the other is small and shriveled.
This article was published in the Times of Malta on 9 October 2013.