Orchids, natural beauties of the Gargano

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Today we have the pleasure to meet an expert researcher of Orchids, Giuseppe Santoro, hailing from Bovino, in the Foggia Province, to know more about these singular flowers whose beauty enriches our landscapes and represents the true pride of Puglia.

The mysterious world of Orchids

The species of orchids that we currently know are about 20,000. With such a large number, they represent one of the largest flowers families that now inhabit the planet Earth.
Most of the species are tropical, in fact they thrive in the pristine jungles. Many of them are epiphytes , which means that have their roots in the branches of the trees and not like normal plants in the depths of the soil.
Italy is full of orchids and, to do a comparison, let’s just think that between Canada and the United States there are no more than 140 species, in Italy we find 230 and in Puglia there are 90! Our region thus holds the record for the richness of species of these beautiful plants.
On the Daunia Mountains we can find a hundred orchids, but if you wish to see more, you should definitely go hiking on the Gargano. It is there, infact, that you will find almost all the species present in Puglia.

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Thanks to its unique geographical position and topography of the area, the Gargano offers an infinite variety of natural environments, which have facilitated the development of a very diverse flora. In Mattinata, in particular, we find a real orchids’ paradise.
Among these fascinating flowers, there are some exceptions to the rule, indeed, there are about 200 species that do not implement photosynthesis , the process that is typical of most of the plants that transforms light energy coming from the sun in sugar (chemical energy) .
An orchid of this type, typical from the Gargano, is the Neottia nidus-avis. It no longer has the characteristic green color of the stem and leaves because, in it, the chlorophyll no longer flows.

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So we might ask: if it doesn’t photosynthesize, from where it takes the sugars used for its livelihood? Well, it takes them from mushrooms! These create infact a sort of association with the roots of orchids (which are quite rounded and thick, like a carrot) and, in exchange for a safe and friendly place to spread and proliferate, they offer orchids the necessary sugars for livin . It’s like a sort of “rent” that the mushrooms pay to the plant to be able to stay within its roots. This association between two different organisms, widespread in nature, it is called symbiosis.

The flowers of these plants are very different from the one commonly found in our lawns as they can be colorful, have a single color, a drawing and/or resemble an insect. This is the case of many Ophrys, where the pistil simulates, in color and morphology, the abdomen of some insects. This peculiar characteristic has given the nams to some species of Ophrys such as O.apifera (the bees’ orchid), O.aranifera (the spiders’ orchid), O.insectifera (the insects’ orchid). In particular, since the pistil is alike the female of an insect, many male insects attempt to mate with the flower…. unfortunately with no chances! So it happens that the pollen sticks to the body of the insect, which then, flying to another flower, pollinates the next one. In other word , many Ophrys “tease” the insects for pollen exchange and future fertilization.

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Some interesting facts

The Vanilla, used by the Aztecs as a spice, derives from the Vanilla Planifolia, a tropical orchid. The natural vanilla is extracted from the outer parts of the seeds, then they are left to dry and ferment. Today it is mostly used to flavor yogurt and sweets of all kinds. Currently this specie is grown in Madagascar and other Indian Ocean islands. In Mexico, the scented flowers of this orchid are still pollinated by hand on wild plants to ensure a good harvest.
There are also rituals related to the popular superstition: as the two tubercles (roots) of “our” orchids resemble the testicles (in fact orchid means testicle), they have been considered an aphrodisiac for a long time such as the Mandrake and used in magic potions by the so-called “witches”. In North Africa, many indigenous people call the two tubercles: the Haya and Mita, the “Life and Death”, due to the different aspect that the two tubercles get during the previous year and the next.

Article and Photo Credits: Giuseppe Santoro

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