Wildlife Holiday News

Broad-leaved Marsh Orchids

The best places to see wild orchids in Europe

Dominic CouzensBy Dominic Couzens
27th January 2020

Dominic is a Naturetrek tour leader and one of Britain's
best known and most prolific natural history writers.

A field full of orchids might seem like a field of distant dreams right now, with the trees still bare and the cold still raw, but the truth is that the time is drawing near to reacquaint ourselves with these most charismatic, most lustrous of flowers. In the benign soils of the Mediterranean, some species are already in bloom. In a few short weeks the orchid season begins in earnest, when every part of Europe will display its own suite of exciting floral spikes, many spectacular, many strange and many ravishing. No other plants in the world hold such fascination for naturalists, what with their relative scarcity, their extraordinary floral variety and their bizarre methods of propagation. No wonder that some people dedicate entire summers looking for as many species and varieties as they can.

This spring and summer, as every spring and summer, we are running tours all over Europe where you can tap into the orchid fandom. We visit several of the best locations on the whole continent and see a good range of the 200 or so species and subspecies that bloom in Europe. Some trips are specialised botany tours, some are natural history tours, and some might even be bird tours where, momentarily at least, botanical royalty takes centre stage. Here are some of our favourites.

Northern Cyprus

The Turkish part of Cyprus is distinctively different from the southern part, somewhat less developed and sleepier. It is also, from a botanical point of view, simply sensational. Alongside a mass of wild flowers, some of them endemic, there are 50 species (or forms) of orchid, of which about 30 flower together in the springtime. The jewel in the crown is the Cyprus Bee Orchid with its large, maroon-coloured blooms, which is reasonably easy to see. There are, however, many others in profusion – indeed, they seem to grow everywhere. Cyprus’ position in the eastern Mediterranean means that many less well-known species occur, such as Anatolian Orchid, Early Mammose Orchid and Eastern Tongue Orchid.

Time of Year: March and April

Days:

Price: £1,595

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Cyprus Bee Orchid (Jessica Turner)


Puglia, Italy

April sees the Mediterranean burst into orchidaceous life, and there are few places quite as delightful to appreciate this than Puglia, on the heel of Italy. Here the scrubby ground everywhere holds a variety of typical Mediterranean delights such as Yellow Bee, Bumblebee, Sombre Bee and Sawfly Orchids. You can bask in the gentle spring climate along this coast and admire the combination of floristic richness and incredible scenery, which includes the 12km-long Gravina di Laterza, Italy’s ‘Grand Canyon’. The rare Apulian Bee Orchid is relatively easy to find hereabouts, with a supporting cast of Early Spider, Pink Butterfly, Naked Man, Bertoloni’s Bee and Small-flowered Tongue Orchid. Many of these are found in the grounds of our hotels!

Time of Year: April

Days:

Price: £1,595

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Pink Butterfly Orchid


Crete, Greece

Long isolated from nearby landmasses, and not far from North Africa or Asia, the island of Crete is renowned for its exceptional flora, with 2,000 species of native plants in all and about 170 endemics. It is possible to see as many as 40 species and subspecies of orchids in April, many of them rare, and including the endemic Cretan Bee Orchid. The highlands and gorges are exceptional places, and one small location near the village of Spili, could arguably be the best single location for orchids in Europe – past tours have found 20 species in a day. Among the many less common species and forms are Bory’s, Sparse-flowered, Four-spotted, Milky, Toothed, Heldreich’s and Rainbow Orchids.

Time of Year: April

Days:

Price: £1,395

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Rainbow Orchids


Italy's Gargano Peninsula

Nicknamed ‘The Orchid Capital of Europe’, orchid-hunters know a visit to this peninsula (the ‘spur’ on Italy’s ‘boot’) is a no-brainer. The region is home to around 70 species and subspecies of orchids, and you can expect to find about 40 on this 8-day tour, enough to keep any orchid enthusiast happy. The area is rutted limestone pavement, hopeless for agriculture but wonderful for flowers. The environment is a hotbed for orchid evolution, especially among the various Ophrys species, which hybridise freely and produce a huge range of varieties. Among the many stars are Pink Butterfly Orchid, Small-patterned Ophrys, Sparse-flowered Orchid, Roman Orchid, Bertoloni’s Bee Orchid, a range of Tongue Orchids and many localised varieties of Late Spider Orchid.

Time of Year: April

Days:

Price: £1,595

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Roman Orchids


Greece's Pelion Peninsula

Many people love orchids, but perhaps need to find the most nourishing, relaxing environment in which to find them. This holiday is a slow-burner, situated in the idyllic hills of the Pelion Peninsula, a hook-like landmass in eastern Greece, and consisting mainly of gentle walks in the local area, with lashings of wonderful Greek food and wine both at lunchtime and at dinner. Here you have plenty of time to admire a wonderful selection of Mediterranean orchids at your feet, including the lovely Mirror Orchid – which is everywhere – Naked Man Orchid, Bee Orchid, Provence Orchid and a range of Tongue Orchids. As an enticing extra, on one day we venture north to the North Pelion Orchid Centre, where 52 species have been recorded, including localised species such as Reinhold’s Bee Orchid.

Time of Year: April

Days:

Price: £1,495

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Naked Man Orchids


Sicily

The warm Mediterranean island of Sicily lies a stone’s throw from the continent of Africa, and it has a flora all of its own, with many endemics. These include several orchids, including the very rare and beautiful Pale Ophrys, of which 90% of the world’s population grows in the Bosco di Ficuzza, near Palermo. Sicily is very good for orchids of the genus Ophrys generally, and with their tendency to hybridise, a wonderful, if confusing range of forms occurs, such as the splendid yellow Lacaita’s Ophrys, a huge Sawfly Orchid and Archimedes’ Ophrys – finding this comprises a Eureka moment, naturally. Other goodies include Brancifort’s Orchid and Small-flowered Tongue Orchid. This two-centre holiday takes in the eastern Madonie Mountains, where most of the orchids are found, as well as the slopes of Mount Etna, with its own special flora.

Time of Year: May

Days:

Price: £1,495

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Small-flowered Tongue Orchid


The Burren, Ireland

There cannot be a keen British botanist who hasn’t heard of the Burren, in Ireland’s far west. This 200 square kilometre limestone pavement is riddled with cavities and crevices (‘scailps’) which support an eclectic flora with many anomalies from disjunct parts of Europe, not least the Dense-flowered Orchid, which other than the Burren is found in the Mediterranean. In order to see this great rarity in the British Isles you can only visit for a short window in the second half of May, otherwise you’ve missed it. Other unusual orchids in the area include the Irish Marsh-orchid, Leopard Marsh-orchid (a form of Early Marsh) and O’Kelly’s Orchid (a white form of Common Spotted.) And there’s a host of other wondrous plants, too.

Time of Year: May

Days: 5 

Price: £695

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Dense-flowered Orchid


The Chilterns, England

This must be the classic British orchid itinerary, just a weekend taking in some of the country’s rarest and most sought-after species. Concentrating in the Chilterns’ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, we’ll look for a celebrated hat-trick of rarities, the Military, Monkey and Lady Orchids. That’s not all. We’ll search the deep woodland for the chlorophyll-less Bird’s-nest Orchid, as well as White Helleborine, and check open areas for the diminutive blooms of the Fly Orchid and marshy fields for spectacular displays of Green-winged Orchid. And we’ll enjoy superb pub lunches, too!

Time of Year: May

Days: 3 

Price: £350

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Bird's-nest Orchids


The Cévennes, France

There are lots of species of orchids in the Cévennes – you can expect 25-30 – but it’s the sheer multitudes that you notice here. There are fields covered with thousands of Early Purple, Green-winged, Military and even Lady Orchid, just extraordinary numbers you don’t see in many places. We visit that part of the Cévennes where the grassy plateaux at 1,000m, the Causses, are bisected by impressive gorges. Apart from grassland, there are huge dark forests of beech and sweet chestnut where Bird’s-nest and Violet Bird’s-nest Orchids grow alongside Dark Red Helleborines. On the limestone there are two endemics, the Aymonin’s Fly Orchid and the Small Spider Orchid, the latter a form of Woodcock Orchid.

Time of Year: May

Days: 8 

Price: £1,595

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Violet Bird's-nest Orchids


The French Pyrenees

The central French Pyrenees are the highest and lushest of this range that forms the barrier between France and Iberia. They have both a rich flora and one with many unique species of plants, from the amazing spikes of Pyrenean Saxifrage to the unreal blue of Ramonda. In the broad, once-glaciated valleys, pastoral agriculture still reigns, and June, just before the meadows are cut, is a gorgeous time to visit to appreciate the many gems, including thousands of orchids such as Pyramidal, Woodcock and every shade of Elder-flowered Orchid that you can imagine. The woods host both Butterfly Orchids, Sword-leaved and Dark-red Helleborine, while on the slopes we should see Burnt, Broad-leaved Marsh and many other orchids. 

Time of Year: Early June

Days: 8 

Price: £1,595

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Burnt-tip Orchids


Bulgaria

Bulgaria is far enough east to offer some truly thrilling orchid species that are far less well known than their southern and central European counterparts – Frivald’s Fragrant Orchid, anyone? And how about the gorgeous, and very distinct Balkan Lizard Orchid, a slimmed down and fragile pink version of our own Lizard Orchid now recognised as Himantoglossum jankae. It’s a stunner. The supporting cast is rich and wondrous, and includes the lovely Bug Orchid, the localised Heart-shaped Orchid and the Wedge-lipped Orchid, as well as many other more familiar field and woodland species.

Time of Year: Mid-June

Days: 8 

Price: £1,395

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Heart-shaped Marsh Orchid


Wengen, Switzerland

Orchids are perhaps just the icing on the cake of this Alpine flower midsummer bloom-fest. If you like barely believable scenery, clean mountain air, extravagantly flowery meadows and the sounds of cowbells accompanying your botanising, then the orchids are simply extra heaven in heaven! The car-free village of Wengen lies at 1,163m, overlooked by classic Alpine peaks. The mountain pastures contain Dark Vanilla Orchids, Small White Orchids and Burnt Orchids, while the woods hold Helleborines and Bird’s-nest Orchids. The crowning glory, and suitably lavish for the scenery, is the wonderful Lady’s Slipper Orchid.

Time of Year: Late June

Days: 8 

Price: £1,995

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Lady's Slipper Orchids


Upper Teesdale, England

Teesdale is arguably Britain’s botanical jewel in the crown, blessed as it is with an extraordinary mixture of climate and soil that has spawned a flora unmatched anywhere, including several vanishingly rare Arctic-alpine blooms. Much of the underlying rock is chalk and limestone, so not surprisingly orchids are a feature. Many fields and meadows are thick with them. If you also like your Dactylorhiza orchids, you’ll revel in Common Spotted and Heath Spotted-orchids, as well as Early Marsh and Northern Marsh-orchids – and their hybrids and variations, of course! Other good species include Lesser Twayblade and Dark-red Helleborine.

Time of Year: Late June/July

Days: 4 

Price: £450

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Heath Spotted Orchids


Austrian Alps

This is a slow-paced, gentle holiday, this time based in the stunning Austrian Tyrol, where there is dazzling scenery around every corner. We will take cable cars rather than hiking to the mountain-tops, confine our wanderings to short strolls, and end each day in mid-afternoon for tea and cake at our comfortable hotel. The bliss will be enhanced by much wildlife, including an array of world-class orchids, not least royalty in the form of the spectacular Lady’s Slipper Orchid. There are some classy highland species such as Dark Vanilla, Globe Orchid and the rare Dwarf Alpine Orchid, plus lots of more familiar gems from Butterfly Orchids to Helleborines.

Time of Year: Late June/July

Days: 8 

Price: £1,695

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Dark Vanilla Orchids


Vercors, France

The Vercors region of the Delphine Alps in eastern France has the reputation of being one of the richest sites in Europe, with a species list of 64 species and subspecies. This summer trip, however, promises one species in particular that might tempt you – the highly localised, enigmatic, almost mythical Ghost Orchid. A reliable site allows you to see this remarkable, weirdly pink plant of deep shade. Nearby there are Dark-red Helleborines and Bird’s-nest Orchids. In more open areas we will see Dense-flowered Fragrant and Globe Orchid among a number of other summertime species.

Time of Year:  Mid-July

Days: 8 

Price: £1,495

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Ghost Orchids


Upper Engadine, Switzerland

The Alps of Switzerland are celebrated for their mountain flowers, but the very best area is the Upper Engadine, in the far south-east, where blooms burst out everywhere and form intense colourful patches at all altitudes, right up to the highest peaks that reach 4,000m. Here the incredible flora dazzles the visitor, even when that visitor is puffing after a climb. The plants compete for attention: which is better, the Red Vanilla or the Dark Vanilla Orchid? And, let’s face it, nothing is more deserving of a royal title than the King-of-the-Alps, an unforgettable relative of the Forget-me-nots? This amazing plant probably even tops some uncommon orchid gems here, such as Flecked Marsh-orchid, Dwarf Orchid, Globe Orchid and Short-spurred Fragrant Orchid.

Time of Year: July

Days: 8 

Price: £1,795

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Globe Orchid


Get in touch

For further information, on our holidays, call 01962 733051 to speak to our friendly office experts, or email us using the contact form below. We’ll get right back to you!
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