Alpine Garden Society

Ulster Group

Plant of the Month, October 2015
   Ophrys   - by Heather Smith
   Ophrys is a genus of small orchids of stunning beauty. I have been seeing these flowers since going on trips to the southern Mediterranean; such as Greece, Turkey and Morocco. They also grow in some other areas and even in the British Isles. Here the Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) is the prettiest example. All Ophrys tend to be referred to as Bee Orchids.
Ophrys is from the Greek  οφρύς  meaning ‘eyebrow’.  All are pollinated by fooling a male insect into thinking the flower is a female and each species has its own insect species pollinator. They grow from tubers and the flowering tuber dies after producing a new tuber for the next year
They fall into about ten groups but there are hundreds of species and subspecies – the number is increasing. As if that was not enough there are also nothospecies (natural hybrid) as Ophrys  is one of the few orchids that create hybrids in nature.  All this makes them hard to identify (I tend to leave this to experts), however, there are some that are easily recognized and very beautiful. In due course distinct groups can be discerned.

Taxonomists help to confuse things, as so often, by changing and switching names, for example, O. lutea ssp sicula (lutea group) is now O. sicula ssp lutea (sicula group),. Why??


Amongst my favourites are:

O. sicula and sicula ssp lutea.  The Yellow Bee Orchid. A medium sized species. Shines brightly in the sunshine due to its colour.


O. bombyliflora.  (Bumble-bee orchid) A small species, rather like a bumble bee and very beautiful.


O. bornmeulleri & O. bornmeulleri ssp episcopalis  These are similar enough to see they are the same group. The subspecies has acquired yellow rabbit teeth (an identification point).


O. speculum (The Mirror Orchid). Gorgeous with its large shining, metallic-blue patch. Where you find it there will be a lot, often dozens.


O. solopax ssp cornuta   - (Woodcock orchid) - Long horns, and very pretty. Easy to identify you would think but many have these projections. Others in the scolopax group can look very different.

O. tenthredinifera  - (Sawfly  orchid) - One of the taller, more robust types with larger flowers.


There are, of course, many others I could have mentioned but these are, I think, a good start

Can we grow them?


Well, yes…and no.  They are fully protected here and in other places and digging up tubers would be likely to result in a dead plant. They can be grown from seed but seed is not readily available. Moreover, aftercare is difficult as damping-off is a big problem. These orchids are semi-parasitic and need specialist care and growing medium. Many need summer heat and dryness so overall, growing them is best left to the experts in orchid raising. Pity.


Hunting them for photography in the wild and finding one new to me is exciting - one of life’s pleasures.