Exhibition in Frankfurt demonstrates color in nature

“The palette of colors in nature is almost infinite”, says the botanist Hilke Steinecke of the Palmengarten in Frankfurt. There, this palette is displayed in an exhibition which can be visited until November 1st. The exhibition also explains the role of pigments in the colors of flowers and how fertilizing insects see colors.

An interesting demonstration shows the acid sensitivity of anthocyanins. When a drip of vinegar is placed on the violet flower of  Ipomoea, its color changes to pink. “In an acid milieu many anthocyanins are rose-pink, in an alkaline milieu blue”, as it is stated in the catalogue. This phenomenon could also explain the color variations of Nigritella nigra ssp. rhellicani in the Dolomite Alps – these occur especially in a region with rather acid soil.

A hint of colour with Gymnadenia

Most white flowering orchids have a last hint of colour in its petals, its spur or ovary. In these cases, the ability to produce pigments is clearly reduced, but obviously not totally suppressed. Studying albiflora species of Gymnadenia odoratissima in the Dolomite Alps, some plants show a rest of rose colour (left) while others still have a violet hue (right) – especially visible in the buds and in the ovary. At the slope of a meadows near the Schlern mountain there are about ten plants of Gymnadenia odoratissima with more or less white flowers.

It seems that there are different pigmets suppressed in both cases. Only plants with all colour pigments suppressed have totally white flowers. That is also clearly visible with Gymnadenia conopsea at the Puflatsch alm of the Dolomite alps.

Nigritella hues of the Dolomite Alps

The Puflatsch Alm above the alpine village Siusi is famous for its colour varietes of Nigritella nigra ssp. rhellicani. As part of a field trip in the Dolomite Alps I had the chance to explore this region with an altitude of 1990 to 2150 metres for four days. Especially rich is the flora in the surroundings of the Arnica Huette, where thousands of Nigritella and Gymnadenia conopsea are flowering in mid July. Additional orchid species are Pseudorchis albida and – in depressed areas – Dactylorhiza majalis.

Among the flowering Nigritella colour varietes are quite common, even though I couldn’t find a totally white one. All the pale-yellow or white flowering plants still had single flowers with a slight rose hue on the edges of the lip. The most common colour variety is an inflorescence with light red flowers in the upper and pale flowers in the lower part.

Not rare at all are hybrids of Nigritella nigra ssp. rhellicani with Gymnadenia conopsea. Their carmine flowers are glowing in the meadows. Interesting was a hybrid of a colour variety of Nigritella nigra ssp. rhellicani with Gymnadenia conopsea, resulting in an inflorescence (left) much lighter than with common hybrids of both species (right):

colour plays with C. rubra and E. atrorubens

Following the hint of an orchid friend, today I’m travelling to the Hesse part of the mountain region Rhoen. Northeast of Fulda, near Huenfeld, a path is leading through a long stretch of forest. Along a slope there are flowering countless Cephalanthera rubra. And directly at the path there are three plants with white flowers. Die first still has a slight violett hue. The second is totally white, but already slightly withering, and the third has only one, relative closed flower.

Along the slope there are more than one hundred Cephalanthera rubra, Gymnadenia conopsea and Epipactis atrorubens. There is one Gymnadenia conopsea flowering almost white, with a last hue of violett in the flowers.

South of Fulda and west of Bad Brueckenau we follow another hint and find a hilltop with an impressive  grassland vegetation. In the lower range there are numerous Gymnadenia conopsea. Farther above, some meters from the forest, there are Epipactis atrorubens flowering – and among them some plants, which are not flowering red-brown, but yellowish-green! While strolling this wonderful slope, I’m seeing a white flowering Gymnadenia conopsea var. albiflora! It is a strong plant with more than 30 flowers, the upper ones still as buds. On the hill there are many butterflies and wild bees. The white flowering Gymnadenia is offering them with its spur filled with nectar as an interesting alternative.

Orchis militaris “albiflora”, budding 

The new orchid season has begun, and the white flowering Orchis militaris in my neighborhood is already showing its buds. This year, there might be several “albiflora” plants at this place. The plants seem to be healthy and strong. The long winter was no problem for them, and there was enough humidity in March and April.


Afterwards I visited a meadow in the Rheingau, the region west of Wiesbaden, with plenty of Anacamptis morio. I estimate that there are about 800 plants, 5 of them with white flowers. This would mean a ratio of 6 Anacamptis morio “albiflora” per 1000 plants – a bit higher than my general estimation of 3 to 5/1000. This confirms that Anacamptis morio has a high tendency to develop white flowers. Today, most Anacamptis morio on the meadow are in full flower. But it’s remarkable that the blossom of the white flowering plants is quite advanced. Some flowers are damaged, especially at the spur (photo). Two years ago, on 6 May, I’ve been at this place near Johannisberg the last time. I didn’t observe this phenomenon at that time. On the lower meadow some Orchis mascula were growing then, which I couldn’t find today

At last I was visiting a place in the Wisper valley as I’ve heard that there had been several white flowering Orchis mascula. In the mixed oak forest I find about 25 mascula in the purple standard colour, but no albiflora forms.

Flower colour matters

The females of this crab spider (Misumena vatia) can change their colour depending on the colour of the flower where they sit and wait for a prey. On a white flower they have a white body, on yellow flowers it is changed to an intense yellow (right, photo: Olaf Leillinger). Thus, the albiflora form of Dactylorhiza fuchsii (left, photo: Norbert Griebl) is quite a convenient place to hunt insects – the standard purple colour of this orchid would not fit her camouflage strategy. The spider changes its colour by secreting a yellow pigment into the outer cell layer of its body.While sitting on white flowers, this pigment is transported into lower layers. The colour change from white to yellow takes between 10 and 25 days, the reverse about six days.

Limodorum abortivum “albiflora” 

Limodorum abortivum: Albiflora form (left; Photo: N.Griebl) and common form (right)
Limodorum abortivum: Albiflora form (left; Photo: N.Griebl) and common form (right)

Limodorum abortivum is one of the rarest albiflora forms of orchids. Sometimes, literature is mentioning the existence of white flowering plants, e.g. Horst Kretzschmar states in his new “Die Orchideen Deutschlands und angrenzender Laender” (Wiebelsheim 2008), p.163: “In Southern Europe, there is a broad variation of flower colours, from white to purple to red, these colours have not been observed in Germany up to now, though.”  Norbert Griebl in Austria has sent me a photo of an albiflora form he found in northern Greece. He observed that the plant has a green stem and green sheathing leaves, “which prooves that Limodorum is not totally living saprophytic” (=myco-heterotrophic).

Compared with the violet stem colour of the regular form the green colour of the stem is indead striking. The existent chlorophyll is obviously covered by dominant anthocyanins. When these purple pigments are absent – as it is the case with the albiflora form – the green chlorophyll colour becomes clearly visible. A study published in 2006 (M. Girlanda, M. A. Selosse, D. Cafasso, F. Brilli, S. Delfine, R. Fabbian, S. Ghignone, P. Pinelli, R. Segreto, F. Loreto, S. Cozzolino and S. Perotto: Inefficient photosynthesis in the Mediterranean orchid Limodorum abortivum is mirrored by specific association to ectomycorrhizal Russulaceae. In: Molecular Ecology 15, 2006, S. 491-504) recognizes the existence of chlorophyll but stated that Limodorum abortivum’s photosynthesis “was found to be insufficient to compensate for respiration in adult plants”. It would be interesting to know how the albiflora orchid is behaving in this regard and if it is also dependent on nutrition by fungi.

Happy birthday, Charles Darwin!


Today, 200 years ago, Charles Darwin was born – his vivid interest in varieties of animals and plants has led him to the insights of evolution: Species are not created once and forever but are rather the result of a process, which is partly still continuing. Especially the relatively young family of orchids is still in the midst of its development, and nature is trying to go new ways. One of them are colour variations like white orchids.

In his book about “The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects” (1862, 2. Auflage 1877), Darwin studied the structure of orchid flowers in relation to their pollinators. About Platanthera chlorantha (which he called Habenaria chlorantha) he wrote, that they are pollinated by moths – due to their long spur filled with nectar and an intense scent at night: “The remarkable length of the nectary, containing much nectar, the white colour of the conspicuous flower, and the strong sweet odour emitted at night, all show that this plant depends for it fertilisation on the larger nocturnal Lepidoptera.”(p.85). In a famous forecast Darwin estimated that there must be a pollinator in Madagascar matching the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale which has a spur with a length of 25 cm: “In Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches!” (p. 198). In 1903, 41 years later, the appropriate butterfly was found, Xanthopan morgani.

Dactylorhiza traunsteineri

The magazine of the Arbeitskreise Heimische Orchideen (AHO) has an article of Norbert Griebl in its latest edition giving an overview about the Dactylorhiza species in Austria. His contribution presents two photos of white varieties – a Dactylorhiza traunsteineri, the photo taken at lake Kochel in Bavaria,and a bright flowering Dactylorhiza incarnata, which is defined als Dactylorhiza incarnata f. ochrantha- with a yellowish accent in the lower part of the inflorescence but not as yellow as Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp. ochroleuca – Griebl views this taxon not as a subspecies but as a species of its own, since he argues that there are almost none hybrids between incarnata and ochroleuca.

In an article about maintenance of biotops in Rhineland-Palatinate Juergen Passin mentions a habitat near Vallendar on the Rhine “Orchis militaris, also var. albiflora”.

Overview on all the orchid genera

The shipment took more than a month but now the book has arrived from Cornell University Press in Ithaca, New York. It’s really intersting, the Illustrated Dictionary of Orchid Genera. The authors Peggy Alrich and Wesley Higgins present an overview on all the genera of the family of orchids – from  Aa to Zygostates.

Aa is quite a nice story – this valid taxon was defined by Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach in 1854. One explanation for the unusual name is that Reiuchenbach took the first and the last letter of the related genus Altensteinia in order to be always at the first place of  the compendia – the new reference book demonstrates his success. Another explanation says that Aa with its 27 species in Central and Southern America commemorates the Dutch printer Pieter van der Aa.

The preface states that there are about 850 accepted genera in the world of orchids – but the number described in the book is more than three times greater. The two authors have introduced a colour scheme to present them: A vivid green stands for the validly published and “currently accepted” names of genera. Light green is the colour of the validly published but “not currently accepted” taxons – among them are e.g. Listera (now: Neottia) or Aceras (now Orchis). The deprecation is explained with molecular-genetic studies: “Current DNA testing of this genus shows that Aceras is clearly nested within Orchis.” With the same reason Nigritella is put to Gymnadenia – but Barlia is printed in vivid green as an accepted taxon, though Barlia robertiana was classified as belonging to Himantoglossum  by molecular biologists.

The compendium explains classification and etymology for each genus listed, followed by a synopsis of the genus with the number of species, geographic distribution, favoured habitat and a short description of morphological features. For each genus there is an illustration of a flower. In the global context the European genera of orchids appear in a a rather limited scope. The authors state that they expect the discovery of new species but these may find their place in the now existing structure of genera.