Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Ducks and orchids

30 March – Ducks and orchids

Even if the winter takes long (although temperatures went up a little and we even have some rainless days), for sure the flowers keep on bursting out of the ground and the fields form a spectacular colorful scene.

Amongst the group of the first spring flowers are the orchids that start blossoming as well. When I heard that there were so many orchids here on the island, as a person totally estranged from nature I immediately thought about the orchids that you buy at the flower shops. So I was greatly disappointed when someone pointed me out a wild orchid here on the island: it was so many times smaller than the ones in the shop.

If you want to see the beauty of a wild orchid, you have about to lie on the ground. But I have to admit, when you really do take a good look at them, you risk getting addicted to their absolute beauty.

In a way orchids are a strange bunch of flowers. Their ‘under lips’ can look like naked little men (Orchis italica), like merry apes (Orchis simia) or like tender butterfly wings (Orchis papilionaceae) and some flowers are like thick fat bumblebees (Ophrys bombiliflora). They sometimes have great drawings on their ‘lips’ that resemble the pointillism or crafty abstract paintings. Some flowers consist of a complicated construction and their colors can be a soft white, pink, blue or green but as well dark brown or bright purple.

You better do not mention the Latin name of an orchid when Greeks are around. ‘Orchis’ means ‘testicle’ in Greek (in Greek an orchid is an ‘orchidéa’). I mean when you tell a nice story about orchids, a Greek hears you telling a story about testicles.

Orchis was the name of the son of a satyr and a nymph. Once on a party of Dionyssos he became so hot that he assaulted a high priestess of the temple. As punishment he was torn in pieces by wild animals and then he was transformed into a plant: an orchid.

Theophrastus (371 – 287 BC) was a nature scientist from Lesvos, as well as the first botanist in the world, and he named the orchid. He probably referred to the story of Orchis. The tube roots of the orchids look like the testicles of a man and earlier in Greece they thought that these tube roots could help to determinate in having a daughter or a son. If the men ate big tube roots they got a son, if the mother ate small tube roots, they ware having a daughter.

There are about 68 species of orchids here on Lesvos, many more off course in Greece and most orchids you will find on Crete. It is a Hercules job to find them all, because they grow in so many different areas and you have to be there in the right time. And then orchids are that small that you do not see them immediately. When you look for them, you really have to look out because before you know you passed them without seeing them.

Yesterday we went on an orchid hunt to Palios (Sarakina), a wild area between Mandamados and Mytilini, where the lime forms ideal earth for orchids. Between the just blooming lavender, pricking bushes, old graves and colorful life-jackets of refugees there were plenty of orchids: the Harlequin orchid (Orchis morio), the Butterfly orchid (Orchis papilionaceae), the Provence orchid (Orchis provincialis) and at least three kinds of Tongue-serapias.

In the Netherlands all orchids are protected. In Greece I sometimes think that nothing at all is protected, and I really had to keep myself from picking one of the many orchids. It is good that nowadays the Greek do go to the supermarket in order to buy food, instead of getting it out of the nature. From the roots of a Man Orchid (Orchid mascula) you can make a nice and medical drink that is popular in the Middle East and in Turkey. But as well in Greece it is said that they make a drink with this orchid, to drink when you have gastric complaints.

In Turkey they dig up the roots after the blooming, they dry them and ground them into a thick flour that they stir through a glass of milk until it gets thicker. This sahlep, like this soft drink is called, made that many orchids disappeared in Turkey. A nearly identical beverage, saloop, was a popular drink during the Victorian times in England.

On the way to Palios you not only find plants that are protected in the Netherlands, but as well birds that are considered as holy in Tibet and Mongolia: the red shellduck (Tadorna Ferruginea). This colorful duck, as big as a goose, lives since years at the sign on the road to Palios, an information board that gives all the information about this duck. I am amazed about his staying at the same place. Each time when I drive there and I see the sign, the shellduck is around. Like he gets paid by the government to stay there. But off course when you open the car to get out, he flies away.

Orchids do not fly away but have the nasty habit to hide. When you are hunting orchids, it is just like with looking for mushrooms: at one moment you know how and where to look and then an amazing world of beauty opens before your eyes…

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