Orchid conference in Neumuehl: Rescue mission in Switzerland

An unusual rescue mission in the canton Zurich was subject of the 2018 orchids conference in Kehl-Neumuehl, Germany. In this Swiss region, nutrient-poor grassland and bright forests have been dramatically reduced, René Gaemperle explained. Reasons are – as in other regions – the over fertilization of the intense agriculture and the increased building activity: “Where the hills are most beautiful, country residences are built”, Gaemperle said.

In order to strengthen weak populations like Ophrys araneola, Gaemperle cooperated with officials and organized manual pollination, collection of seeds, mixture of seeds with river sand and sowing. If the appropriate symbiosis fungus is in soil, this method works rather soon, explained Gaemperle. The time from sowing to first flowering is just three to six years.

He chose a different method with Anacamptis coriophora: Seed capsules from the Lake constance habitat Wollmatinger Ried have been sent to an expert for in vitro culture in Sweden. The young plants have then been planted at seven places in canton Zurich, overall 525 plants until 2015. In this year 56 of those plants have flowered, Gaemperle told. When species are threatened by extinction, such methods are the only way to save them. “If we don’t act now, they will vanish forever.”

Threatened orchid species are also an issue for Peter Steinfeld who lectured about the nature reservate Bliesgau in the German state of Saarland. Steinfeld has been observing the changes of the regional flora for 35 years. According to him, Cephalanthera rubra is threatened by extinction in Saarland – he found the last flowering plants  in Bliesgau about 20 years ago. Heavily decreasing is also Dactylorhiza viridis. But Limodorum abortivum is expanding, probably coming from the French region of Lorraine. The same case is with Ophrys sphegodes and Orchis simia. As another “profiteer of climate change” Steinfeld named Himantoglossum hircinum. Climate change was also the subject of my lecture with impressions of this summer on Gotland, Sweden. Jean-Marc Haas also reported about dried out places in Uzbekistan.

At the conference with more than 60 participants from four countries, which was organized by Harald Baumgartner and Hubert Heitz, Helmuth Zelesny lectured about a field trip to the Golzentipp mountain in Eastern Tyrol, with colour variants of Nigritella rhellicani in white, yellow and carmine. In this region at the edges of the Lienz Dolomites Gymnadenia conopsea is also quite often white-flowered. Hybrids of both species display a big variety of forms. Not so common is the hybrid of Gymnadenia conopsea with Pseudorchis albida. Nigritella rubra is flowering on lime stone. The variety of the orchid flora on this Alpine meadows has also been described by Norbert Griebl in his paper published by AHO-Berichte.

Helmut Presser lectured about new taxons related to Ophrys holoserica and Ophrys scolopax in France as there are Ophrys demangei and Ophrys quercophila, the oak loving Ophrys. Hartmut Moeller again showed impressive photos of pollinators, this time he observed Epipactis palustris with potter wasps, bumblebees and beetles.

Albiflora orchids on Gotland

There have been a couple of botanical travel reports from Gotland with findings of white-flowered orchids, especially of Dactylorhiza incarnata. This year, I’ve finally visited this Baltic Sea island, in a quite warm and dry summer.

Dactylorhiza incarnata

Such Dactylorhiza incarnata f. albiflora without any color hue have been quite rare – on my round trip by bike I’ve seen four plants. That translates into an estimated ratio of two or three per 1000 plants, which is quite the relation to be expected. Quite more often have been plants with a light yellow hue, although those could not always be addressed as the subspecies (or other taxonomic order) ochroleuca.

It was obvious that Dactylorhiza incarnata, possibly the orchid with the biggest population on Gotland, is occuring here in an marked color polymorphism – from white (very rare) to yellow (occasionally), light violet/pink (common) and the dark purple (common) flowers of the cruenta form which is sometimes viewed as a subspecies.

With Orchis mascula there have also been albiflora forms in the frequency to be expected from genetical mutations. In all those plants the pattern of purplish points in the flower lips has been preserved.

On a meadow near Oestergarn there was a beautiful white-flowered Gymnadenia conopsea among hundreds of plants..

Following a hint by Marco Klüber I also found an almost white-flowered Orchis spitzelii in a pine wood on the Northwestern coast. The color hue was still recognizable, the loss of pigments not as far reaching as here. But it’s still an indication that this orchid species also shows a genetical inclination to develop albiflora forms.

Gymnadenia conopsea x Nigritella rhellicani with white flowers

In the latest edition of the Berichte aus den Arbeitskreisen Heimische Orchideen (Jg 34, Heft 2, 2017, S.123-145), Norbert Griebl presents the diversity of alpine orchid hybrids on the meadows of the Golzentipp mountain (2317 m) in Eastern Tirol. Among them there is also a white-flowered hybrid of Gymnadenia conopsea and Nigritella rhellicani (Gymnigritella suaveolens). Griebl views two possible options:

  • a white-flowered Nigritella rhellicani, which can be rarely found at the Golzentipp, and a white-flowered Gymnadenia conopsea, which is not rare in this region, have hybridized
  • a spontaneous mutation of a hybrid affecting the production of color pigments.

Griebl sees a higher probability for the second case. This is supported by the fact that there have been no reports of such an Albiflora hybrid in other regions with color varieties of Nigritella rhellicani and white-flowered Gymnadenia conopsea, for example on the Seiser Alm in Southern Tirol – though these Suaveolens hybrids can be regularly seen there.

white flowering in Engadine

Visiting this Eastern region of Switzerland, my special interest was focussed on Epipogium aphyllum, flowering in dark forests. “Aphyllum” refers to the lacking of any leafs – and so they don’t have any chlorophyll. Some plants also miss anthocyanins – the Swiss expert of the region, Joe Meier, sent me a a photo of a totally white flower found recently. He pointed out that this form could not only be addressed as albiflora, but also as albino – following the definition of a plant without any pigments. I’ve found a plant with reduced anthocyanin in its lip, while a rose hue is still slightly existent:

Epipogium aphyllum

The trip to the region near the charming town Scuol also confirmed the slightyl increased tendency of Gymnadenia to develop albiflora forms. While there has been quite a lot of Gymnadenia conopsea with a marked purple colour, I also met a white-flowering plant:

Gymnadenia conopsea

Gymnadenia conopsea

Most of Gymnadenia odoratissima tend to a very bright purplish colour while retaining some visible hue of it. But on a mountain meadow there was also a plant without any anthocyanin in the flowers, even the column being yellowish-whitish:

Gymnadenia odoratissima

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.

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.

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.