Orchids of the Ariège Pyrenees

orchidée en Ariège PyrénéesDid you know that there are almost 60 species of orchids in Ariège? And while a few are very rare, others grow so abundantly that you practically have to tiptoe while walking in certain semi-abandoned pastures. You'd never suspect that these very meadows, because they are grazed less than in the past, will cause these orchids to disappear. Saplings will begin to push up through the invading bracken and the forest will replace the open land.

Of course certain orchids grow in the forest, but they are more discreet. In the shade of the trees and the absence of sunlight they have lost the essential characteristic of plants: the colour green, the sign of chlorophyll and photosynthesis. Through the intermediary of a fungus they draw their nourishment from the sap of tree roots. Certain ones will produce a blossom that never opens, sometimes even remaining underground.

Though our indigenous orchids can't rival in beauty their exotic cousins, they are no less interesting for their biology. Did you know for example that the seeds are very small because they have no starch reserve? A single capsule of a male flower may contain up to 6,000 seeds. In order to germinate they must associate themselves with microscopic underground fungi which procure for them the necessary nutrients. But they are prudent, for they keep the fungi at the extremeties of their roots and destroy those that attempt to infest the entire plant.

Did you kinow that some orchids have ingenious strategies for attracting insects for pollination? Certain ones emit the same odor as female insects in order to attact the males; the lower lip of others also mimic the abdomen of the insect. A male insect tries in vain to copulate with the flower, pollen adheres to his head and he then pollinates the next flower he lands on.

Other orchids decorate their lower lips with dots and dashes to direct insects toward the nectar they secrete, offering food in exchange for pollen transport. Still others have 2 spots on the petal, the better to direct the butterfly's proboscis toward the nectary.

While certain orchids in Ariège are very tall (up to 1 metre for the billygoat orchid (Himantoglossum Hircinum), whose name describes its odor) others are quite small, less than 10 cm high with flowers measuring a mere 2 or 3 mm. They can be brightly coloured and strongly scented (Anacamptis Pyramidalis) or completely green and barely visible in the grass.

Ariège extends from cultivated alluvial plains through dense forests and wooded hillsides to high mountains. There are granite massifs, calcareous ridges, schisteuses or humid zones. This creates a mosaic of environments and microclimates, each with its own orchids. Extensive grazing in the past created many open spaces--which alas inevitably revert to bracken when the land is abandoned.

The Association des Naturalistes d'Ariège has published an Atlas d'Orchidées d'Ariège, available in bookstores in this region.

May and June are the best times to find orchids in Ariège, and fall flowers of other types are still in bloom in the lower elevations after the summer.

–Lucien GUERBY, membre de l'Association des Naturalistes de l'Ariège

Many thanks to these photographers

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