The delicate beauty of orchids fires enthusiasts, and as one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world, searching out its vast number of species is an endless journey of discovery and delight. The orchid comes in many strange and lovely forms, particularly in the tropics where it is widespread, and varies greatly in size and appearance in different climatic regions. Both the beauty and long life of cut orchids makes this family of flowers the favourite of florists throughout the world, and for many tropical countries orchids are a major source of income.
Although the diversity of species diminishes as you move away from the tropics, this is only relative, and the orchid enthusiast can still find many species in more temperate climes. No less than 148 different orchid species grow in Turkey, for instance, and 40 of these are endemic, that is found in Turkey alone. Turkey is home to almost as many orchid species as grow in the entire European continent, and has more endemic species than any other country in the region. In terms of its flora Turkey has been likened to a continent in its own right. Altogether there are 12.000 known species of plants in Europe, while Turkey alone has approximately three-quarters of this number, of which 3000 are endemic, accentuating the importance of the country’s biodiversity.
Most orchids flower in spring, so although it is possible to find blooming orchids at any season in Turkey, in the spring months the hills and mountains are brightly carpeted with orchids of all colours and sizes. They grow in such varied habitats that it is possible to find orchids on the alpine meadows of the Kaçkar Mountains, in the Black Sea region, in the maquis scrub of the Aegean, and in the pine forests high in the Taurus Mountains along the Mediterranean coast. But of all the places in Turkey where orchids are to be found, it is the southwestern province of Muğla which is home to the most species, at nearly seventy. In March and April at least five or six orchid species bloom on coastal meadowland, and if you return to the same meadows a couple of weeks later you will find their place taken by five or six different species.
Himantoglossum caprinumThose to whom the word orchid conjures up an image of the exotic species sold in florists may not immediately recognise orchids when they come across them while wandering in the Turkish countryside. Less flamboyant and extravagant in size than their tropical cousins they might be, but equally exquisite when examined at close quarters. The tiny purple flowers of the green-winged orchid (Orchis morio), for instance, are captivating. As you walk along be on the lookout, too, for the spiralling flower spike of lady’s tresses (Spiranthes spiralis), a frail plant seldom more than 10 cm tall, its small flowers like dancing butterflies. These miniature flowered orchids open the door into the magical world of Turkish orchids.
At the other end of the spectrum are such large and striking species as the giant orchids of the genus Himantoglossum (left side) which grow to 50 cm in height, and Anacamptis pyramidalis with over thirty flowers on each stem. The Anatolian orchid (Orchis anatolica), a species named after Anatolia, again has all the beauty of a butterfly in flight. Of them all the most intriguing are the members of the bee orchid genus Ophrys, characterised by flowers with an uncanny resemblance to bees or other insects. This deception attracts bees and insects to the flowers as colour and scent do to other flowers, illustrating the devious ways of nature in ensuring the propagation of living things.