At the southern extremity of Italy, Sicily is an enticing and rewarding destination for the orchid-hunter, with a variety of habitats packed into a relatively compact island.
One such is virtually unique in a European context - the immense brooding mass of Mount Etna is impossible to ignore, and it's on its lower slopes and older lava fields that we'll begin our orchid-hunting exploration of Sicily, searching for delicate Orchis brancifortii and the frankly improbable Ophrys grassoana - the latter grows in lava habitats where precious few plants of any kind, let alone orchids, can be found. Whoever said orchids were fussy and delicate clearly hadn't met grassoana!
We'll base ourselves in the orchid-rich south-eastern quarter of the island, spending days exploring different tried and tested sites in the area, mixing local trips with forays somewhat further afield. One such longer day out is unmissable as we head into the Bosco della Ficuzza where we will search for, amongst other gems, rare primrose yellow Dactylorhiza markusii, and the enigmatic and primitive Ophrys pallida - the latter believed to be one of the most ancient of all the Ophrys species and, judging by a larger population of similar Ophrys found in North Africa, likely to be a relict from extreme antiquity. The verdant forests of Bosco della Ficuzza will yield other flowering treasures not only in the form of orchids, but also abundant cyclamen and peonies.
The drier habitat found in the south-east of the island will make for especially fruitful hunting grounds for a host of orchids, not least some particularly extreme examples of the Ophrys genus. O. oxyrrhynchos is a stupendous example of their kind, with large, colourful and statuesque flowers. Said not to be a particularly variable species, we beg to differ, as we will visit a colony that includes variations with wide canary yellow margins to their flowers. Speaking of which, we'll also see abundant (and variable) Ophrys grandiflora which, as the name suggests, is the most magnificent of all iterations of the Mediterranean O. tenthredinifera group.
Several fusca-type Ophrys are said to be endemic to Sicily, and we'll do our very best to see as many as possible - not least O. laurensis on the mountain from which it was first described, Mt Lauro.
Naked Man Orchid Orchis italica will be frequently encountered on our travels, but we'll keep our eyes peeled for hybrids too - we'd hope to find their hybrid lovechild with Man Orchid Orchis anthropophora. In some areas Anacamptis longicornu will carpet the floor as numerous as bluebells back home in the UK, and Neotinea lactea will be a frequent delight too. Ophrys hybrids may also be encountered as the week goes on - this tour promises to be a feast for the eyes. (Speaking of feasts, this is Sicily, so we'd hope to be well-fed too!)
And if you've enjoyed exploring Rhodes in the past with Jon, why not try another Mediterranean island's orchids for size this coming spring?