a dream in green and white: Ophrys apifera in Basel

Finally, I’ve met her: The bee orchid at the Rhine port of Basel which has been described as Ophrys apifera var. basiliensis – in 2006, Paul Delforge “downgraded” her to Ophrys apifera f. basiliensis.

Ophrys apifera var. basiliensis

My Swiss friend Klaus Hess has told me a couple of years ago about this special population of bee orchids. Now we met at Basel and took the bus to a place called Waldhaus. There, we walked to the bank of the Rhine. Between the railway tracks and the river, limited between the container terminal to the West and the old Auhafen to the East, there is a small strip of grassland quite rich with species. Dominated by Bromus erectus, there is also growing Knautia arvensis, Geranium pyrenaicum, Leucanthemum vulgare and other flowers.

Basel Rheinhafen

Soon Klaus found the first of these special bee orchids. They are special not only due to their lack of pigments, but also to the special form of the petals. Those are sepaloid, much longer and broader than usual with bee orchids. We are just in the beginning of the flowering time. As Klaus was looking for further plants I studied the flower with my camera – and observed the rare visit of an Andrena bee at a bee orchid. It was just a visit, not a pollination at all, though the bee carried pollen from other flowers. Ophrys apifera is autogamous, and the yellow pollinia are soon falling down to perform self fertilisation.

Ophrys apifera var. basiliensis

The next surprise on this Ascension holiday was meeting Stefan Schwegler, who has described those bee orchids as Ophrys apifera var. basiliensis (in: Orchid Review 112/2004).

Basel Rheinhafen

He showed us a couple of other plants, among them a regular Ophrys apifera with its brown and yellow pigments as well as Platanthera chlorantha, Anacamptis pyramidalis and Dactylorhiza fuchsii. And he told us about the permanent struggle to conserve this special place against commercial interests of the port management. The population of Ophrys apifera var. basiliensis is declining, Stefan Schwegler explained, but still consists of about 100 plants. Most of them don’t flower every year, but wait for their moment to appear.


  1. Hypochromatic Ophrys apifera var. friburgensis

    In 1978 I went to that place with the professor Heinrich Zoller, due to a scientific excursion with some other botanic students. At that time, only 1 specimen did grow there, a very big one with more that 10 flowers, and it did not growing up and flowering every years. He was determinating it as a hypochromatic Ophrys apifera var. friburgensis. He did write about this flower in these terms before 1980, it was his own scientific work and not the one of Schwegler in 2004.
    If you look clearly, you will see that the morphological form is identical to Ophrys apifera var. friburgensis and it is true that it is a hypochromatic specimen.
    That someone else was giving her the name of var. basiliensis is really a big mistake for a lot of good reasons: First, this specimen was described by Zoller before 1980, he was finding it and follow it since the 60es until he did die. Second, the site where it grows is not in Basle, really not, it is in Birsfelden in an other canton. Third, it is not possible to determine it as a variety for itself, especially when morphologically it is 100% the described variety friburgensis. The only difference is that this form in Birsfelden is without colour, hypochromatic! So for me and all followers of Prof. Dr. Dr. Heinrich Zoller RIP it is the hypochromatic var. of friburgensis!
    Every year I come back to this place, looking after this wonderful flower and thinking at my friend Zoller, he was until he was leaving us a very good friend. He was coming also to my 50th birthday party in 2003. In my last working episode since 1980 as amateur and since 2008 as fulltime job, I am a organic – natural wine maker from Jura, but I have some wineyards in Germany, Ötlingen and beginning June, when I am cutting the grass, I come back to this place every year, so also today!
    The population of this plant, due to a very good preservation of the site and the autogamic behaviour of this species, was growing. Today I did count more than 40 specimen and spread on more than 150 m on the bord of the port in Birsfelden. I am very happy to see that this population is very dynamic and will have a future. I hope that Schwegler & Co. will revise what they did publish in 2004. The first is “primus inter pares”!

    In my wineyards in Montsevelier JU, Delémont JU and Liesberg BL I have a wonderful Teucrio-Mesobrometum with a lot of orchids, specially the normal Ophrys apifera!

    Have a nice moment with my pictures

    Martin Buser

  2. thank you so much for your important notes! I agree that there is no need to describe hypochromatic forms – but it has been done in many ways. Best wishes, peter

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