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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 May 2014 by John Richards

Velebit orchids and others. Entry 272.

Orchids on Krk

There is no doubt that our visit to the Croatian coast (8-15 May) described in the last issue deserves a second outing. I intend to concentrate on the many orchids we saw, and then mention a few other plants as well. We spent one day on the island of Krk ('kirk') which is reached from the mainland by a handsome tolled bridge south of Kralevica about 50 km north of Sveti Juraj where we were staying. Krk has a more typically Mediterranean vegetation than the Velebit coastline, so that we saw many plants only on the island during our holiday. Once on the island, I had noticed that the road to Krk town passed two wetlands, and so we stopped at the first one, about 10 km south-west of the bridge. It was clear that access to the wetland was forbidden, and on enquiry to the Tourist authority it transpired that it is not possible to visit either, the excuse being that they provide the island's water supply. This is most unfortunate, as it is clear that they are outstanding wildlife habitats that I feel sure the Croatians should make available to passing toursits such as ourselves. However, there is a path outside an impenetrable fence to the north of the wetland, and we walked a short distance down this.

Almost immediately we encountered a fine population of Anacamptis laxiflora, which had to be viewed through the fence. This is sometimes known as the Jersey Orchid as its only British populations are on the Channel Islands.

Orchids on Krk

On the other side of the path, together with a more familar Anacamptis, the pyramidal orchid, grew a large population of the only Serapias we saw, which is probably S. bergonii.

I had already mentioned that a major feature on the mainland were the vast flowery meadows that stretched back east from the front range, almost all of which seemed to be full or orchids. Perhaps the most widespread of all is Anacamptis morio, the Green-veined orchid, which occurs in countless millions. Typically it is a deep purple in colour, but as in the UK, some populations are much more variable in tone.

The other really widespread orchid which occurs in vast numbers is Neotinea tridentata. 

Like two of the Anacamptis mentioned earlier, Neotinea tridentata used to be regarded as an Orchis species of course, and this is also true of the Burnt-tip Orchid, Neotinea ustulata, a rather scarce plant of southern chalk and limestone in Britain. Many of the plants we saw in Croatia were magnificent, and much larger than they are usually seen in the UK.

Interestingly, and in support of the revised classification of the Orchis genus which has proved so unpopular, the only hybrid we found amongst millions of plants in multispecies populations was between the two Netotineas, N. ustulata x tridentata. It was a most appealing character.

The colour scheme of this hybrid was reminiscent of the much larger and relatively unrelated Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea. We saw this magnficent plant several times and usually in the mountains, both on the Alan and Ravni Dabar roads. In Britain it is now largely confined to Kent.

It is said that the labellum was supposed to resemble a Victorian lady's crinoline, hence the name.

Staying with the genus Orchis, I now want to discuss a couple of puzzles. The first concerns a small population we found together with several other species in superb meadows around a small road which wound north-west of Svica, west of Otocac. Initially I thought these were some sort of hybrid, and then that they were the Naked Man Orchid, O. italica. Eventually I decided that they must refer to the Military or Soldier Orchid, Orchis militaris, but they are of a form very unlike those I have seen elsewhere.

Here in comparison is a plant of Military Orchid photographed last year on the Col de Lautaret in France.

Well, the lip (labellum) is the same shape, so I suppose it must be that. But in that case, what was the next plant that was growing nearby? I think it may be O. militaris x Neotinea tridentata. The later species was common in the vicinity. If so, that would gainsay the idea that hybrids only occur within the new generic limits!

On to another orchis-based problem. Quite a few meadows grew what I had little hesitation in dubbing Orchis mascula (Early Purple Orchid), and it was indeed nearly over flower. This photo shows one of the few still in reasonable condition (as an aside, what has happened to British Early Purples this year? There seem to be almost none in this area).

More commonly however we saw the following plant, which has much longer, more pointed perianth segments and a large pale unspotted lip patch. As soon as I saw it I thought I recognised it as a plant I have seen in northern Italy and knew as O. signifera. However, I now find that this plant has been transferred to O. ovalis which is best known for its purple-streaked (not spotted) stems and leaf-bases. Most of the many plants we saw were entirely green, lacking any purple streaking.

However, this plant did have some purple streaking. Nevertheless, I am not at all sure that purple streaking is necessarily a good feature for O.ovalis Or is O. signifera a good taxon after all?

Amongst the other orchids we saw, Traunsteinera globosa, the Globe Orchid occurred in many of the meadows, but was clearly going to flower a couple of weeks later. We saw Neotinea lactea nearly finished flowering in two spots, and Orchis pallens in bud on Zavizan. Much further inland we saw meadows full of fragrant orchids, Gymnadenia conopsea from the motorway, and Dactylorhiza romana nearly over flower growing at low levels. However in higher meadows and alpine pastures one could scarely miss the Elder-flowered Orchid ('Adam och Eva'), Dactylorhiza sambucina, which is both widespread and abundant. Unusually, in most areas it seemed to be entirely yellow in colour (just 'Eva' presumably), although we did see purples and reds in a few areas.

And some others

Here some other odds and end that appealed to me. Coming back down the slope from Alan, I was greatly taken by a little fumitory growing in limestone crevices by the road. This is a plant I had never heard of, which is now called Pseudofumaria alba ssp. acaulis, and which, if it is in cultivation, I should like to grow.

And some others

On shallow limestone soils above 800 m asl, and especially close to the scarp, is an abundant and extremely showy milkwort. I think this must be the plant referred to by Polunin as P. supina and this may  be its correct name, although I suspect it is in fact a good form of the familiar P. major with flowers of a lustrous and intense violet rather than the usual pink. The key difference is whether the plant produces lateral inflorescences, and I think it probably doesn't.

I thought Peltaria alliacea was a lovely thing. The only other species in the genus is a box-like evergreen shrub friom Greek serpentine, so I was intrigued to find an elegant herb with brilliant white flowers and attractive smooth bluish amplexicaul leaves. This would be a lovely subject for a sheltered spot in the garden.

The local onosma is totally spectacular and very common on roadside rocks on the limestone up about 800 m in altitude. I think it is O. taurica.

Two globularias are locally common. One covers limestone rocks in the subalpine zone, and is probably best called G. meridionalis, although some authorities equate this with G. cordifolia.

The other is quite common on deeper soils in the subalpine zone and is herbaceous. It is part of the G. vulgaris complex and it probably what in Greece is called G. bisnagarica, which is not recognised in Flora Europaea.

Not surprisingly perhaps, this is an area with lots of genistas, and we saw G. pubescens, G. sericea (prostrate and silvery), G. tinctoria, G. germanica, and best of all, G. holopetala, which is a local endemic. This is supposed to be a relative of G. radiata, which also occurs, but as we saw it is much more prostrate and dwarf. It is best known by a silky standard, and clambers over limesone rocks, particularly on the Ravni Dabar road.

Another dwarf subshrub that clambers over limestone rocks in the subalpine zone is Euphorbia capitulata. This is supposed to be herbaceous, but seems distinctly shrubby to me. It has these amazing heads that are pimply and look like little strawberries, so the plant is distinctly un-spurge-like and I had to look up  photos on the internet to convince myself this is what it is.

Yet another plant of limestone rocks on the Alan road was a little Cymbalaria, C. microcalyx which I first encountered in southern Greece, for instance at Mistras. It has a distinct charm, unlike our weedy ivy-leaved toadflax.

I am finishing with a plant what can be found not 10 km from where I live, but rarely flowers with us. This is the bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, one of my favourite ericaceous shrubs, and one which is, unusually, often found on limestone. On parts of the higher slopes at Alan and Zavizan it became the dominant shrub, together with prostrate juniper and Pinus mugo.

Sadly, we didn't see one of the bears (or did we?).

I have scarcely touched on the rich flora of this region, which is really well worth a spring visit, and is as yet hardly known in the west. I warmly recommend it and hope many others will follow and find many more good plants. As I have already shown, there are also many mysteries to unravel! I find that I have not mentioned how unspoilt the whole area is. This is a sizeable country, more than 500 km from one end to another, with scarcely 4 million people. Most of the area is covered with primary forest, or species-rich meadows. The wildlife is spectacular. The Velebit mountains alone have 1000 brown bears, of which the picture above is of just one. There are wild wolves, lynx and eagles. The standard of living seems quite high and the people are delightful.

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