Mediterranean Garden Society

Orchids in the home of the Centaurs

by Phillip Cribb
photographs by Phillip Cribb

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 110, October 2022

The photo at the top of this page shows the Common tongue orchid (Serapias lingua) on the slope of an olive grove in Pelion (Photo Phillip Cribb)

In in April 2022, Phillip Cribb was invited along to find and identify orchids and other plants of Pelion for the participants on a botanical illustration course run by Carol Woodin, the eminent botanical artist, and on the post-course tour to the famous sites of Meteora and Delphi. The course concentrating on the peninsula’s rich orchid flora, was run by the Mediterranean Centre for Art, Gardens, Plants, and Design set on a ridge-top towards the southern end of the peninsula in the village of Lafkos with spectacular views across the bay to the mainland and islands of the bay.

Phillip writes: Lying almost half-way between Athens and Thessaloniki in mainland Greece lies Mount Pelion and the Pelion peninsula. In mythology, Mount Pelion is the home of Cheiron, a centaur, the half-man and half-horse creature of Greek mythology. Cheiron was the tutor of many Greek heroes including Jason, Achilles and Heracles. The backbone of the peninsula is a long mountainous ridge, highest in the north at Mount Pelion at 5324 ft (1624 m) and about a third as high at the southern tip.

Late snow in the southern Pelion peninsula the week before we arrived in late March suggested that we might struggle to find any orchids at all. But the Mediterranean spring did not disappoint. We began by exploring around the village which, perched on a hill, was surrounded on three sides by Mediterranean scrubby woodland (phrygana) and olive groves.

Ophrys scolopax subsp. cornuta

In the scrub below the track we found the Roman orchid (Dactylorhiza romana), a purple or pink-flowered orchid, often growing here in small groups. It has unspotted leaves and an unspotted lip with a pale base but its most distinctive feature is its long upcurved spur. Elsewhere, this orchid can be dimorphic with yellow-flowered plants as well as the pink and purple ones.

Dactylorhiza romana

In the scrub below the track we found the Roman orchid (Dactylorhiza romana), a purple or pink-flowered orchid, often growing here in small groups. It has unspotted leaves and an unspotted lip with a pale base but its most distinctive feature is its long upcurved spur. Elsewhere, this orchid can be dimorphic with yellow-flowered plants as well as the pink and purple ones.

Ophrys tenthredinifera

Ophrys sphegodes susbsp. mammosa

Anacamptis morio subsp. caucasica

On the slopes of a nearby olive grove we hit a mini orchid paradise. In this sloping site, we found both of the above species along with the Sawfly orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera), the Mediterranean Early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes susbsp. mammosa), the Eastern green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio subsp. caucasica), the Common tongue orchid (Serapias lingua) (photo at the top of this page) the White helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium), and the Dense-flowered orchid (Neotinea maculata).

Ophrys iricolor

A farm track down the slope towards Milina on the coast appeared too dry for orchids. The slopes were full of flowering Tree heath (Erica arborea), Strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo and A. andrachne), Greek gorse (Callicotome villosa), Blue lupin (Lupinis micranthus) and rockroses (Cistus and Helianthemum species). Some bushes providing partial shade by the path hid two spectacular bee orchids. The large-flowered Ophrys iricolor is often treated as a subspecies of the Dingy bee orchid (Ophrys fusca) but has flowers about four times larger that bear a double brilliant shiny blue speculum (the hairless marking on the lip surface).

Ophrys speculum

An even finer speculum was found nearby on the flowers of a clump of the spectacular Mirror of Venus orchid (Ophrys speculum). Its blue speculum is surrounded by a dense fringe of short reddish hairs and it is easy to see how it might fool a male bee into considering it a potential mate.

Nearby, we later found Sword-leafed helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) growing in shade along a track down to Milina on the coast, and a single flowering plant of Ophrys umbilicata with green sepals, a hooded dorsal sepal and a lip not unlike the Woodcock orchid but with shorter side arms.

Serapias vomeracea susbps. laxiflora

A good road runs down the east coast of the peninsula and the olive groves that have escaped being sprayed with herbicide (fortunately a good number) proved a fertile hunting ground for the group. We had been guided to a grassy meadow by the calm waters of the Gulf by our host Sue Wake, MGS Branch Head for Pelion and the Sporades, who had spotted Tongue orchids there the previous year. She was not mistaken as the meadow yielded three species: the Common tongue orchid (Serapias lingua), the Lax-flowered tongue orchid (S. vomeracea susbps. laxiflora) and the Small-flowered tongue orchid (S. parviflora), the first two in large clumps. Some undoubted hybrids between the first two were also found here, providing a degree of confusion when it came to identifying plants. A fourth orchid in the meadow was the eastern European and eastern Mediterranean Green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio subsp. caucasica) which gets its vernacular name from the greenish veins on its lateral sepals.

A second visit to this site was particularly profitable because the steep rocky olive grove across the road proved to be full of orchids. On the lower slopes the Mirror of Venus bee orchid was common. Higher up the Small-flowered tongue, Horned woodcock and Green-winged orchids were scattered across the slope in some numbers.  However, the commonest species here was the Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis), scarcely in flower when we arrived but opening rapidly as the week progressed. Most plants here had rich deep pink flowers but some had much paler ones.

Orchis italica

The local people are gaining an increasing appreciation of the orchids of Pelion through the work of a group led by Dimitros Ikonomidis of Kato Kerasia in North Pelion. At a local museum he has developed a display of orchids, the biology and ecology of which are used to teach visitors and local children about native orchids. He has also produced an illustrated guide to The Terrestrial Orchids of North Pelion published by the Greek National Tourism Organisation (GNTO). In the gorge behind Kerasia we were shown Orchis italica, Ophrys sphegodes susbsp. mammosa, Ophrys lutea susbps. galilaea and the Giant orchid (Himantoglossum robertianum).

Ophrys ferrum-equinum

A brief scan of the book showed that more orchid delights are available later in the spring on Pelion. These include Eastern Lizard orchid (Himantoglossum caprinum), Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea), Four-spotted orchid (Orchis quadripunctata), yellow-flowered Provençal orchid (Orchis provincialis) and Few-flowered orchid (Orchis pauciflora), Man orchid (Orchis anthropophora), Fragrant bug orchid (Orchis coriophora subsp. fragrans), Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera), Horseshoe orchid (Ophrys ferrum-equinum), Reinhold’s bee orchid (Ophrys reinholdii), Delphi bee orchid (Ophrys × delphinensis), the closely related Trident orchid (Neotinea tridentata) and Milk orchid (Neotinea lactea), Greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha), the rare Red helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra) and the Asparagus orchid (Limodorum abortuivum). The presence of many of these reflects the wooded nature of Mount Pelion which is much better watered than adjacent parts of Greece.

Our post-workshop tour took us to Meteora, Delphi and Mount Parnassos. Delphi proved to be a wonderful and unexpected climax to the tour. Several years ago, the Greek archaeological authorities deemed it useful to spray the Delphi site with weedkiller to reveal the base of monuments better. This misguided policy led to the extermination of orchids from the site for many years. However, we were delighted to find that wild flowers have reinvaded the ruins. Below the stadium, which crowns the site, we found large colonies of Giant orchid (Himantoglossum robertianum) and Ophrys sphegodes susbp. mammosa. The variation in flower colour of the first and lip shape and markings of the second were notable. Growing beside these were small clumps of Yellow bee orchid (O. lutea subsp. galilaea) and a magnificent clump of Mirror of Venus orchid (Ophrys speculum).

Ophrys sphegodes subsp. aesculapii

Our final stop was just west of Delphi village where we had a picnic lunch. The scrub here is overgrazed by goats and it is amazing that orchids, which goats love, have survived at all. Imagine our delight when we found a rich orchid flora around our picnic site. The Horseshoe orchid (Ophrys ferrum-equinum) was everywhere, another species that is remarkably variable both in lip and speculum shape. Here we also found Yellow bee orchid, Dingy bee orchid (Ophrys fusca subsp. fusca), another subspecies of the Early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes subsp. aesculapii), Mirror of Venus orchid, Delphi bee orchid (Ophrys × delphinensis), Four-spotted orchid (Orchis quadripunctata) and Mediterranean butterfly orchid (Anacamptis papilionacea). Of these, the Delphi bee orchid set my pulse running. I had found it many years ago in the Delphi archaeological site and just by the village but it has apparently gone from both. Here we found a group of about 30 plants, It is a beautiful orchid with bright pink sepals and petals and a rich velvety lip with two hairy brown arms and a blue speculum of variable shape ringed with white but often reduced to just a couple of small dots. It is a partially stabilised hybrid of the Argolid bee orchid (Ophrys argolica) and the Woodcock orchid (Ophrys scolopax).

Pelion was unknown to me before this trip but I shall certainly return. The lack of tourism in early spring (it heats up at the Greek Easter) and the friendly local people make it an ideal place in which to relax and enjoy unspoiled Greece and its wonderful spring flora, especially its wealth of orchids. We saw 22 orchid taxa in our few days there, a great return in such a late spring.

THE MEDITERRANEAN GARDEN is the registered trademark of The Mediterranean Garden Society in the European Union, Australia, and the United States of America

Data Protection Consent

website designed and maintained
by Hereford Web Design