Orchids, Dalmatia's Secret Treasures

Published in Environment

Wild orchids are a special part of our environment. Are we looking after them?

In the Netherlands 104 species of plants are protected, out of some 2000 indigenous plants and those which are not indigenous but which have established themselves in the environment. Orchids are among those under protection. Plant protection is taken seriously. Building projects are preceded by studies of the proposed sites, to establish measures for safeguarding any protected plant species on them which are endangered, whether on local, regional or national level. The state agency for highways has a duty to ensure that roadside flora and fauna are preserved. There have been extensive mapping projects to identify protected species and their locations. 

Ophrys incubacea. Photo Frank Verhart

Wild orchids come in an almost infinite variety.The orchid family is technically known as Orchidaceae, and it has been estimated as embracing up to some 26,000 species in 880 genera. The genus type name is taken from the testicle (orchis in Latin script), because many grow from bulbous twin tubers. Within the family of Orchidaceae is a large group of the genus ophrys, known as bee-orchids. Ophrys is the Greek for eyebrow, and the name is said to refer to the furry appearance of many species within the group, which is similar to bees and other insects. The ophrys group reproduces through pseudocopulation by mimicking female insects so that males are attracted and pollinate them. Ophrys orchids are said to be the most important group of orchids in Europe.

Ophrys bertolonii. Photo Frank Verhart

Frank Verhart is a Dutchman with a lifelong passion for orchids. Starting when he was about eight, his father Max and uncle John used to take him to the orchid garden in the the Gerendal valley near Maastricht, the only hilly area in the Netherlands. It was uncle John who started the family interest in endemic orchids: he 'infected' Max with his passion, who in turn passed it on to Frank. Frank's grandparents lived in the Limburg area, so every spring the family visit would be combined with orchid-viewing. The orchid garden was designed to preserve and protect wild orchids, and Frank learned early on about the fragility and uncertain fate of wild plants. He was particularly impressed by the fact that the garden contained the only specimen of ophrys fuciflora in the Netherlands. Apart from the Netherlands, his father took him to Germany and France to observe orchids in the wild, and his interest gradually grew. At the age of 18 he started going orchid-viewing on his own.

Frank Verhart identifying orchids on the roadside near Jelsa on Hvar. Photo Vivian Grisogono

Frank studied Forestry and Nature Management, earning a BSc from Larenstein University near Arnhem, which is situated on the edge of the Netherlands' biggest forest. He worked for eleven years in civil engineering and landscape architecture. The company which first employed him was called Groenplanning, which was later merged into Grontmij, one of Europe's leading civil engineering and consultancy firms. The company's scope of practice encompasses Energy, Highways and Roads, Sustainable Buildings and Water, with clients as diverse as mining companies and residential developers. Three seasons of Frank's work for the company consisted of investigating and mapping protected flora and fauna along the Netherlands' motorways. The monitoring covered 1/8 of the country's motorways. The findings were passed on to the State Agency for Motorways, which was responsible for looking after the protected species.

Mapping the route, overlooking Jelsa harbour on Hvar. Photo Vivian Grisogono

Mapping is a key factor when investigating wild plants, and over the years Frank has mapped wild orchids over wide areas of Europe, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Poland, France, Crete and Rhodes. When he left his job in 2014, he decided to devote an extended period of time to his hobby of studying orchids in the wild. In the spring of 2014, always travelling on foot, he visited the northern part of Dalmatia, covering the area from Zadar down to Šibenik and Klis, via Ugljan, Pašman, Vodice and Biograd na moru.

Ophrys sicula. Photo Vivian Grisogono

Frank recorded his findings in photographs and logs, and sent the results to the Department of Botany in the Biology division of Zagreb's Science University. The Department runs the Flora Croatica Database (FCD), a comprehensive listing of Croatia's plants, giving their properties, uses, locations, state of preservation or endangerment, and their protection status. Prof.dr.sc. Toni Nikolić of the Department of Biology commented that Frank Verhart's work was extremely valuable, as he had submitted very interesting data for inclusion in the FCD, and he was one of only about ten Croatian and foreign researchers devoting expertise and time to the study of Croatia's wild plants in the longer term. Most of the research, as in Frank's case, was being carried out on a voluntary basis, with little (most often nothing) in the way of recognition, reward or thanks.

Hybrid: orchis quadripunctata and orchis pauciflora. Photo Frank Verhart

Although orchid statistics can never be more than rough estimates, it is thought that there are about 30 different species on Hvar. One, the ophrys pharia, is particular to Hvar. It was described by P. Devillers and J. Devillers-Terschuren in Naturalistes Belges (vol. 85: 233), in 2004, and photographed near the village of Vrbanj in central Hvar in April 2007. Frank Verhart walked across a great area of Hvar during a week-long visit in April 2015. He did not come across the ophrys pharia in his searches, but he identified 16 species and two hybrids with certainty, and found several more orchids whose identity he could not be sure of, as they were not familiar and not yet flowering.

Pointing out an orchid specimen among the wild plants. Photo Vivian Grisogono

Identifying orchids is of course easiest when they are in flower, as some are very tiny. Different species flower at different times from the spring through the early summer. In most cases it takes a sharp eye and expertise to spot them.

Limodorum abortivum. Photo Frank Verhart

Fourteen of the species which Frank identified on Hvar preferred sunlight, while two, limodorum abortivum and neotinea maculata had a preference for the shade of the woodlands and olive groves.

Tiny orchid flowers. Photo Vivian Grisogono

Frank recorded 137 locations on Hvar. The most abundant locations were in the highlands around Humac and the fields above Poljica: in the latter he estimated that there were some 10,000 specimens of orchis italica, between 5,000 and 10,000 of orchis quadripunctata, about 1,000 of ophrys incubacea, plus lesser numbers of five other species. These were growing in an extremely concentrated fashion, about 100 plants per square metre, especially in the eastern part of some olive groves.

Orchis anthropophora. Photo Frank Verhart

From Hvar, Frank moved on to Brač for six days of orchid exploration at the very end of April.

Frank Verhart beside Splitska Bay on Brač. Photo Vivian Grisogono

During his visit, Frank enjoyed the orchid-spotter's greatest pleasure, that of seeing certain species for the very first time. He was especially pleased to find serapias ionica, as well as ophrys tommasinii, ophrys leucadica, ophrys liburnica and himantoglossum adriaticum.

Ophrys leucadica. Photo Frank Verhart

There were differences in distribution between the orchids of Hvar and Brač. On Hvar, he found only one location with the ophrys bertolonii, one of his favourite orchids, whereas on Brač there were ten locations with some 200 plants in total. In the vicinity of Nerežišća there was one place containing about a hundred specimens of ophrys bertolonii. The orchis picta was much more in evidence on Brač than on Hvar, where Frank observed only one specimen.

Orchis picta. Photo Frank Verhart

On Brač there were eight locations with specimens of orchis picta, five with just one plant each, two with two plants and one, not far from Škrip, with 40 plants. Among several hundred specimens of limidorum abortivum seen during his searches on both islands, the only one in flower was on Brač. By contrast, the orchis intacta was more common on Hvar, where it preferred the edges of the woodlands; on Brač there were some in the cultivated olive groves, including a group of 16 near the village of Splitska.

Orchis intacta. Photo Frank Verhart

Orchids are protected by law in Croatia, just as they are in the Netherlands and other countries, but there is little practical evidence that people are aware of this. Sometimes the more colourful varieties, such as the orchis pauciflora, are picked for vases. One local asked if Frank could 'just pick a little one' for her to cultivate at home. But in a field on Brač, there was evidence of more awareness. Frank was challenged by the owners, who wanted reassurance that Frank was not picking any of the orchids. When they saw his camera and notebook and realized that he had full respect for nature, they relaxed and welcomed him.

Orchis pauciflora. Photo Frank Verhart

Are orchids and other protected flora and fauna taken into account when building projects are being planned in Croatia? I hope so, but suspect not. In Splitska on Brač there was a particularly fine pale bluish-white specimen of orchis tridentata growing close to a site where two large-sized villas were under construction.

Splendid orchis tridentata among cyclamen in woodland near a building site in Splitska on Brač. Photo Vivian Grisogono

That suggested that there were probably more in the site itself, but it was difficult to see how they could have been preserved.

 

Intensive building on the site in Splitska. Photo Vivian Grisogono

The blue orchid was just a stone's throw from the building site. Photo Vivian Grisogono

Wild orchids face other man-made threats. Careless dumping of builder's rubble causes a lot of damage, especially if it contains fragments of coloured ceramic tiles, as the traces of paint poison the soil.

Frank came across heaps of builders' rubble during his explorations. Photo Vivian Grisogono

Another man-made threat is caused by the widespread use of herbicides. Glyphosate-based products are used frequently and in large quantities over many of Dalmatia's cultivated areas. There is a tragic lack of understanding of the damage these poisons cause, not only to the environment, but to human health. Recent EU-inspired requirements for all users of pesticides in Croatia to attend special courses have, in a sense, increased the problem, as the attendees are given the idea that there is such a thing as 'safe use' or so-called 'sustainable use' of pesticides, whereas the truth is that there is not. In the autumn of 2014, the Dutch Parliament voted to ban the sale of the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup to private individuals, as from late 2015. The ban, albeit only partial, follows bans in Russia, Tasmania and Mexico.

Herbicide spraying, April 2015

The natural environment is Dalmatia's greatest asset. We must not allow it to be destroyed by carelessness and ignorance. We should be protecting it through more extensive monitoring, and education about conservation.

Orchis tommasinii albino. Photo Frank Verhart

Some locals expressed surprise that a foreign specialist would come to visit Dalmatia just to seek out species of flowers which might be tiny or even non-existent. The truth is that specialist groups of orchid-lovers have been visiting Dalmatia quietly over many years, recording what they see and enjoying as much as remains of the unspoilt environment. These are what are known as 'quality guests' in the tourist industry: people who do no harm, cause no trouble, respect the environment and people, and (we hope) carry away with them a positive impression of the place which encourages others of like mind to come and see Dalmatia's treasures for themselves.

Orchis italica. Photo Frank Verhart

Orchids are fascinating, and very many people are passionate about them, in a quiet academic kind of way. Frank Verhart is a typical enthusiast, blessed with a great deal of knowledge, and the desire to learn as much as possible in a human lifetime about these little wonders of nature.

Orchis tridentata. Photo Frank Verhart

There is an international group working for the protection of orchids worldwide. Belgium has been particularly active in the field. Some experts have made orchids their life's work, and have written magnificent essential guides, including Jean Devillers-Terschuren and Pierre Devillers; Pierre Delforge, who has written comprehensive guides to the orchids of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; and Karel Kreutz, who is currently working on a ten-volume overview of all the orchid taxa of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Dalmatia's treasure trove of orchids is beyond price, and should be preserved as one of its most prized assets.

© Vivian Grisogono 2015

Note: all the photographs depicted in this article were taken during Frank Verhart's stay on Hvar and Brač as the guest of Eco Hvar at the end of April 2015

You can find Frank's report on Dalmatian orchids in 2017 - 2018 on this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1tqx1iIJUFLN8H7LJlFTkvlD6YhdzfsmJ/edit, with the Hvar section described on pages 16-18, photos from page 26.

Frank's report from his 2019 visit to Dalmatia is on this link: http://www.franknature.nl/Verhart%20orchid%20observations%20in%20Croatia%20in%202019.pdf.

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    Vanessa Bauza is the editorial director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

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