Ghost Busting… in search of a real orchid rarity


As I trudged uphill, through the thick beech leaf carpet, carrying rucksack and tripod I felt, instinctively, that this year would not be one for those tiny treasures, the ghost orchids, that have over the years held a particular interest for me within the greater encompass of my  Orchidophilia.


The most recent finds of the Ghost orchid – July 2016

The colouring of ghost orchids – various pale yellow and cream tones and reddish stem flecked with a darker red – creates a camouflage effect in their beechwood habit with its dappled lighting. The  knack is to spot the first when, as with orchids of all kinds, others seem to spring up…as you get your ‘eye in’, especially when shafts of light penetrating the canopy pick them out. I had, in fact. given up, resigned to trying another day when I took a slight diversion some 40m sideways to a gulley and found the first flowering plant just a few cm high….another 9 spikes followed, flowering some two weeks earlier than I have ever found them previously.

The serious work began with macro lenses of all sorts from wide to telephoto with  natural light and flash…whilst large, persistent mosquitos rejoiced that they had a new food source. One naturally has to suffer at times for one’s art but their vicious forays and persistence  meant that a much higher proportion of images than usual had to be discarded.


The orchid spikes are small and they blend into the golden browns of the beechwood floor. I find them most readily when shafts of light penetrating the overhead leaf canopy picks them out, albeit for a moment.

Yesterday was, in reality, a bit of a ‘test’ for me involving, as it did, some 3.5 hours driving each way and some 2km uphill in the heat. In the ‘old days’ this was not something that ever bothered me and I have long joked that, in terms of spirit and build, I was built for it. However, for almost two years I have not felt myself (as it were…) lacking in energy,  generally tired and devoid of a strength I had always taken for granted. Now, post hormone therapy and then surgery I am both prostate and cancer free… there is a positive physical effect and, also a psychological boost.  I feel I am back to what passes for normality as far as I am concerned and catching up for lost time. I did not feel any more knackered than I have in the past – success!

As well as displaying some images from yesterday I have decided to dust off and edit an article I wrote about four years ago that appeared on the Images from the Edge Blog. It looks at my history with this orchid and offers an insight into what love of a subject and a species can bring….

GHOST ORCHID (Epipogium aphyllum), growing under beechwood at 1300m,nr Abbadia San Severo, Mt Amiata,Tuscany

The orchid lip (labellum) is the modified third petal that characterises the Orchid Family – here it is a crinkles white affair with red markings. Most often with orchids it points downwards because the ovary (which connects the rear of the flower to the stem is twisted through 180° (re-supinate). In the ghost orchid the ovary is not twisted and so the lip points uppermost (non-resupinate).

The start of it all

Way back in the mid 1960’s I was able to choose a book as a school biology prize and, having no idea of what it would eventually mean in my life, I chose Summerhayes’ classic Wild Orchids of Britain. An uncle of mine had a lodger who photographed them and when he gave a slide show one evening I was intrigued by Ophrys faces and the insect mimicry….. Although there here was much between its covers to fascinate an embryonic orchidomane I was especially intrigued by Epipogium aphyllum, the ghost orchid, with its extreme rarity and the sheer unpredictability of flowering.

Never in its evolutionary history can one imagine that the Ghost Orchid has been anything other than extremely uncommon at best. There were never woodland glades filled with this orchid growing like bluebells, for flowering is unpredictable in all its known localities throughout Europe into Asia and, though the pollination mechanism is effective, little seed is reputedly set.

There was some publicity (and not a small amount of hyperbole) that greeted the re-discovery by Mark Jannink some years ago of this species in the UK for the first time since 1986. It made me think back over some personal experiences and the results of informal and continuing researches in Europe since my search began in 1976 when I was living in Wendover, Bucks. Potential buds for aerial stems form in autumn but, if conditions the following year are too dry the rhizome continues to grow but buds (and even flowering stems) are aborted below ground .

The following year things looked better and I made weekly pilgrimages to a certain far-too-well known beechwood near the town of Marlow. I hasten to add that, at this stage, my trustworthiness had been tested and established through conservation work I had done and the powers that ran BBONT (The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Naturalists trust) at that time finally entrusted with chapter and verse as to previous known beechwood locations.

GHOST ORCHID (Epipogium aphyllum), very rare and sporadic species growing under beechwood at 1300m, Mt Sirente, nr L'Aquila, Abruzzo. Italy. July 2013.

The best clump I have encountered so far in central Italy had 4 flowering stems – in one of its German sites I have images of clumps of 20 and more flowering stems.

Each time I went there I noticed at least one other person present head down..and we played that essentially British botanical game where each nonchalently pretends not to notice the other (although they know quite well why they are there…). What struck me then and since is that this (and other locations) were an open secret and, however well-meaning, people looking for it could well have been (and I would suggest still are) the biggest threat to its survival as they shuffled in the beech mast, crushing nascent stems and just not noticing others. The underground system with its rhizomes and stolons is not deeply situated and it cannot be aided by general trampling. I found nothing in 1976 nor in 1977 making weekly visits from July to late September however, a telephone call in August 1978 alerted me to the discovery of a flowering stem that very day. The next day, with precise directions, I was in the wood but even then it was too late: there were no flowering stems but suspicious signs of the removal of a plant…the thief had not bothered to disguise the hole left. To say I was angry would be an understatement and I made careful enquiries and a ‘professional’ name kept being mentioned but there was no concrete proof. The general feeling was that, if proof of the theft were to be forthcoming, there could well be another large hole in the beechwood – this time filled with human material!



The flowers lend themselves well to the graphic approach of a backlit white acrylic sheet.

In September 1978 I left for a new life in Cyprus: in 1979 I received a telephone call to say that another spike had appeared and even that been removed. For normal folk it is hard to countenance the selfish obsessiveness of the very few. This malady seem to affect collectors of rare plants, birds’ eggs,  butterflies…there is no thought for the welfare and survival of the species: they are probably mentally ill. My involvement in conservation has lasted for four decades and I have had direct experience of the depredations of some of these people and the steps to which they will go… even to the point of impersonation. Nowadays, I treat requests for sites politely – in Italy many of the locations for rarities have been trusted to me: I am at the end of that chain and will not break the trust without express permission. I tend to get many requests for information on orchid locations…most are polite, backed my mutual friends with whom I can check bona-fides. However, I have several times been sent a map and, without a word of pleasantry or politeness (not even a Dear Paul) faced a demand to annotate it…my failure to respond is met with rudeness and (when I explain) accusations of playing God. So be it – the plant comes first and I have had my trust broken in the past. I was pestered for years for a site for a rarity Himantoglossum comperianum. I relented against my better judgement for I felt slightly sorry for the individual concerned..the next year, in spite of all assurances, an image of that species appeared in the promotional material of a tour company promising a sighting. I was furious.


A flower freshly opened the part pointing downwards is the column which holds the reproductive parts. The 3 sepals and 2 petals other than the lip are very similar and coloured yellowish. They are sometimes collectively called tepals or perianth segments and are often slightly more spread in more mature flowers.

The timeline in my tale now shifts to 1985 though in the interim I had found a fair few orchids and written a book.  Having returned to Britain, I received a telephone call from Germany in late July where a close friend told me that, in its classic site at Hüfingen in the Black Forest, there was an incredible display. Such things are impossible to resist and, that afternoon, I took the first of several trains then a ferry to Ostend and an overnight train to Stuttgart…where, at 6am, I was greeted with a mug of hot coffee by German friends Ralf and Karin Berndt-Hansen. They spirited me off and by 9am I was shaking with excitement – surrounded (well almost) by flowering stems of the ghost orchid.

My very strong feelings about being European and the importance of widening interests  (to get a British perspective in proportion) informs my political and social views on the EU in general. I despair of ill-informed, narrow-minded nationalism – that horrid ‘Little Islander’ mentality – and love the diversity of different  people, philosophies, outlooks and languages. It is the same for me with plants and animals. I have done my fair share of searching far and wide in the UK for single plants of various species, for insects and so on but my first visit to Crete in the spring of 1975ì4 made me realise I wanted to see places where the conditions were right for things to thrive. If I was going to put in my efforts to save species I wanted those efforts to have the best chance of success and that meant widening horizons especially when I lived in Cyprus and now in Italy. With very limited funding available everywhere for conservation it makes sense to direct it where it will have the best chance of success. I have long taken the attitude that I do not want to add my weight to the numbers going to see orchids where they are endangered, thus helping to ensure their demise. In Germany in an ancient pinewood, a wonderful colony of these exquisite ghost orchids survived (and still does) Locals know the site well and the fact that, across the road in another part of the wood, grow large numbers of lady’s slipper flowering a couple of months earlier. There is great local pride taken in their protection.

I know that some people feel a certain degree of ‘nationalism’ when it comes to orchids and feel they must see these things in Britain. In fact, back in the days when I did talks the length and breadth of the UK I was met one evening by a gentleman who asked me to let him know when I began to talk about orchids beyond Europe’s shores because he was only interested in UK orchids… I tried to explain that it was only by viewing the distinctly impoverished UK flora in relation to the larger picture that one could understand the evolution and effects of human pressures on the orchid population… not to say other species of plants and animals.  He was unmoved…and, I believe, ultimately the loser for his monorail mentality.  I cannot describe the joy I get from watching butterflies outside the study door..swallowtails scarce and common, Queen of Spain fritillaries and many others, of nightingales in spring and now of golden orioles daily invading our fig tree and hearing their fluid melodiousness from dawn. We frequently have to duck and dive to keep body and soul together but it is worth it.

GHOST ORCHID (Epipogium aphyllum), very rare and sporadic species growing under beechwood at 1300m, Mt Sirente, nr L'Aquila, Abruzzo. Italy. July 2013. MYN

Some observations…on the Ghost Orchid

In Germany I had a first opportunity to study the orchids at close quarters and at leisure, noting the distinctive scent I had read about in old books. It has been alternately described as sweet or foetid and resembling fermenting pineapples. This shows the unreliability of olfactory descriptions – to me it was distinctly sweet: I could not swear to either honey or pineapple tones, I don’t have that kind of nose.  It may be worth pointing out that, although the wood at Hüfingen is of ancient pine it is not gloomy everywhere within like the UK beechwood sites –all the continental plants I have found either growing in beechwood/ mixed broadleaf or under pine were growing in lighter conditions, even at woodland edges where sparse grass was able to grow.

In every case the host woods have been long-established and the orchid plants found have usually been where there is water close by in winter – a wet area in a wood, a ditch and so on. The substrate has always been calcareous but a plant’s immediate environment will be slightly acidic from the decaying leaf material.

As a pure saprophyte, any need for light would be questionable, especially since there are records of flowers being produced underground. This is accidental – probably an aborted spike since the pollinators do not burrow, unlike two fascinating Australian species in the genus Rhizanthella that always flower underground.

Although I have not been back to the Hüfingen site I have happened by chance upon plants several times since -always in mountain regions of Europe. You get a ‘feel’ for the kind of wood – the pinewoods have plenty of moss, the beech an abundance of leaf litter with woodland species such as the wintergreens (Pyrolas) and other orchid taxa such as various Epipactis and, by flowering time the seed-bearing stems of bird’s nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) and yellow bird’s nest (Monotropa hypopitys) I can recall one ‘accidental’ find in a site in northern Greece – an ancient beech wood that I explored in late July and then several finds in long established pine and mixed woods in the Dolomites.

GHOST ORCHID (Epipogium aphyllum), very rare and sporadic species growing under beechwood at 1300m, Mt Sirente, nr L'Aquila, Abruzzo. Italy. July 2013. MYN

And now to the present day

Whilst living in Italy I have (for seven years in succession) visited several known sites often with Italian friends who, themselves, have been searching for decades. I cannot express too strongly my gratitude for the generosity and companionship of Pierluigi Pacetti and Pino Rattini…not to forget the improvements to my spoken Italian.

It does not matter where this orchid grows, it capriciousness seems universal…there are no guarantees of success and  I never start off a day’s hike with anything more than mild hope. With climatic conditions everywhere in Europe now highly unpredictable the chances of a wet spring are slim, but even when there is rain at what you might tentatively think was the right time flowering is, to say the least, uncertain.

There is one superb location in the Apennines some 2.5 hours journey from where we live. that demands hauling whatever photographic equipment you have for a good 90 minutes uphill in the heat. But when you get to a beechwood where a stream runs across the path in winter fatigue evaporates, when in the dappled light you glimpse the prize, trust me, I know. Spikes of ghost orchid have been seen on one occasion in for visits – what was particularly worrying was the apparent level of activity from wild boar which in Italy seem to have a love of orchid roots and tubers irrespective of rarity and are a major threat to their survival.

Another site on Mt Amiata has yielded a single flowering spike on one occasion. A far better and more reliable site in Abruzzo (the one I returned to yesterday 13th July 2016) has provide at least a handful and more of spikes on each of the five occasions I have visited it.

The future

In continental Europe sites can be threatened by logging and, ultimately by climate change. Prolonged warming and lack of rain will render many sites unproductive though currently it is almost impossible to tell the extent of this (or of the distribution of the species) given the irregularity of flowering. There are numerous recorded instances of Epipogium aphyllum appearing after long absences (as in the UK) most likely from underground parts that have persisted and there is always the fact that is not an easy orchid to find for it blends so well with leaf litter on the woodland floor where there is dappled light. The difficulty in ever knowing with any degree of accuracy the distribution of a species like this is that numerous visits have to be made over a potentially lengthy flowering period in successive years.…serendipity is a great friend of orchid lovers.


Some Plant facts

Flowers – The ghost orchid is an extremely attractive plant, irrespective of its almost legendary status as a rarity. The flowers are large for the overall size of the orchid (often less than 10cm tall…) slightly pendent and delicately hued. The lip has a crinkled margin with a large, triangular central lobe, it is whitish to delicate rose pink with purple papillae on its inner surface. white and delicately marked with rose pink whilst sepals are yellowish. and then there is that scent, delicate but sweet. There are purple streaks on the outers surface and the rather fat spur.

Pollination – Small ‘humble’ bees are said to be the most successful pollinators as their size is just right to effect pollination .The bee lands on the exposed part of the lip and makes its way towards the spur where it can reach the nectar. As it backs out it ruptures the delicate rostellum, the anther cap is pulled away and the pollinia exposed – these stick to the head parts of the bee.

Very few seed capsules are produced in the UK (R.A Graham noted one in a group of 22 flowering stems he chanced upon). I have seen a few capsules where the plants grew in lighter cover in larger colonies in Italy and Germany where, presumably, there was an increased chance of a productive insect encounter.

Distribution – E. aphyllum is a Eurasian species extending from Europe through Russia east to Japan and one of two known species in the genus Epipogium – the other, E. roseum has a wide distribution throughout the tropical regions of the world. The ghost orchid was first discovered in the UK in 1854 by Mrs W. Anderton near Tedstone Delamere and in 1876 nr Ludlow. The Oxfordshire plants were first noted in 1923. All European orchids have a saprophytic phase in their lives when tiny orchid seen, containing a nucleus with no nutriment lands on suitable soil and is invaded by a mycorrhizal fungus. With those species growing in the open that dependency on a fungal association decreases with time. With many woodland species the association is always there and sometime when, for example, leaf cover increases and light levels are lowered it can revert to a strong dependency on the fungus.  The relationship is an odd one  in that the orchid causes the ends of the fungal mycelia within the underground parts to become little ‘balls’ called plotons and then digests them…so the saprophytic aspect of the fungus feeds the orchid through its parasitism, in effect.

The Ghost orchid is one of four European species that have an entirely (or largely) saprophyte existence, the others are: The bird’s nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis), the Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida) and the Violet limodorum (Limodorum abortivum) all of those are widespread in woodland in Europe: the Violet Limodore does not occur in the UK.


Top left: Violet Limodore (Limodorum abortivum).  Top right:  Bird’s nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis).  Bottom left: Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida).   Bottom right:  Ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) .

Origin of the name  – The name derives from Epi (on) and pogon (a beard or lip). In the literature I have the following diverse list of alternatives appears…there may be others. No-one seemed quite sure of where to put it in the taxonomic scheme of things. The first record I can find is from Siberia (1747) and here is a list of synonyms that occur in the literature – you can see how this taxon has moved genera over the years.

1.  Satyrium epipogium L. (1753)

2.  Orchis aphylla F.W. Schmidt (1791)

3.  Epipactis epipogium (L.) All. (1789)

4.  Limodorum epipogium (L.) Sw. (1799)

5.  Epipogium aphyllum Sw (1814)

6.  Epipogium gmelinii Rich. (1817)

7.  Serapias epigogium (L.) Steud. (1821)

8.  Epipogium epipogium (L.) H. Karst. (1881)

9.  Epipogium generalis E.H.L. Krause (1905)

Common names —have included ghost orchid,  spurred coralroot,  Gmelin’s orchid….

If you have read this far then I can honestly say that this sums up all I know about this rare and intriguing species…but I shall doubtless go on looking and finding out that much more as time passes. To date, I know of no successful attempts to cultivate this species.

NB. No part of this article may be used in any way or for any purpose whatsoever without the express written permission of the author and photographer:  

© Paul Harcourt Davies  2016

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