The High-Altitude Orchids of the Swiss Alp

Throughout history and around the world the orchid has always been held in a certain high regard, captivating us with its exotic beauty and subtle, intoxicating aroma. So much so that an era was named after the height of the pursuit of the discovery of this seductive flower: the “orchidelirium” of the nineteenth century, when Victorian explorers and botanical collectors ventured to unchartered reaches of the globe in their quest to bring back new species.

A Hardy Beauty

While it may appear delicate, the plant has adapted to survive in some of the harshest environmental conditions in the world, and it’s found everywhere from deserts and rocky mountain landscapes to the Arctic and the moist, dense tropical cloud forests of South America.

The Wild Orchids of the Swiss Alps

Of all alpine flora, the orchids that grow in the high-altitude meadows of the Swiss Alps are perhaps the most sought-after by amateur botanists. There are around two dozen species growing wild there, some of which are found in abundance and some (like the elusive Lady’s Slipper, Burnt Tip, Dwarf and Fly) that are extremely rare.

Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium calceolus)

So named for the unique slipper-like pouch that forms the flower, the Lady’s Slipper traps insects, which are then forced to travel up through the flower to escape – thus instigating the pollination process. It differs to other orchids in that it is characterised by having two anthers, making it “diandrous”. This led experts to reclassify it as a separate family from OrchidaceaeCypripediaceae.

Bird’s Nest (Neottia nidus-avis)

The Bird’s Nest is widespread around North Africa, Asia and in altitudes up to 2,000m in Europe, although in some countries (including Norway) it is on the near-threatened conservation list. It has no leaves and also produces no chlorophyll (so it is non-photosynthetic), although it has a symbiotic relationship with a particular fungus, allowing it to obtain nutrition.

Broad-leaved Marsh (Dactylorhiza majalis)

Amongst the diversity of alpine flora, the sight of the lovely Broad-leaved Marsh Orchid is always welcome. Its distinctive leaves and pinky-purple inflorescence (of up to 50 smaller flowers) is often head and shoulders above the rest of the blooms amongst which it grows, reaching up to 70cm.

Small White (Pseudorchis albida)

While it is one of the more common species of alpine flora, the miniature proportions of Pseudorchis albida make it a delight to encounter. It is small, often growing in amongst grasses, and its inflorescence can actually be anything from bright white to varying shades of yellow and green.

Fly (Ophrys insectifera)

The extremely rare Fly Orchid is so named for its resemblance to that insect, which makes it attractive to the male fly, but in fact more commonly to wasps and bees. In the attempt to mate with the deceptive flower, pollination will occur.

Other Species: Common and Not So Common The alpine flora of the Swiss alps also includes numerous other commonly found species of the Orchidaceae family, including (but not limited to): Broad leaved Helleborine, Dark-red Helleborine, Twayblade, Early Purple, Short-spurred Fragrant, Common Spotted, Vanilla, Frog and Traunsteiner’s.

Less common species that nevertheless may be seen include: Long-leaved Helleborine, Lesser Butterfly, Greater Butterfly, Round-headed and the Burnt Tip.

The Memorable Orchidaceae

Against the spectacular backdrop of the Swiss Alps, an encounter with members of the exotic Orchidaceae family is all the more memorable; it’s not hard to appreciate the obsession of those nineteenth-century collectors in their quest for such beauty.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in alpine flora. As a passionate lover of botany, Marissa chooses the expert-led flower tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable encounters with a wide range of plant species in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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