In 1901 eight orchid collectors entered the Phillipine jungle in search of orchids, but only one returned alive – five of his colleagues vanished without trace, one was burned alive, and one was eaten by a tiger. Our appetite for orchids was insatiable, as vividly recounted by Norman MacDonald in The Orchid Hunters, his thrilling account of collecting orchids in Colombia to supply the American corsage market:
“When a man falls in love with orchids, he’ll do anything to possess the one he wants. It’s like chasing a green-eyed woman or taking cocaine. A sort of madness…”’
I’ve been crazy about orchids for almost as long as I can remember. For years though I kept it in check – orchids were just another part of the natural world I was so besotted with. They were something I’d notice while I was out birding, or on holiday… but they hadn’t taken over my life.
Three years ago, however, I let them do just that. I chased orchids – setting out to see all of Britain and Ireland’s native species in the course of one flowering season, I was hunting for plants and the colourful stories attached to them too. I searched for orchids; I photographed orchids; I spoke endlessly about orchids; and I dreamed about them every night. Happily, despite everything, I wasn’t eaten by a tiger. And, in the end, I wrote a book about those orchids.
One would think that this would have got these charismatic flowers out of my system, but no. I now spread my wings further afield every spring and summer, searching for orchids across Europe, from the Pyrenees in the west, to Estonia in the north, and to the Dodecanese islands in the eastern Mediterranean. My friend and Leica colleague David Lindo exhorts us all to ‘look up’ – but I’d like to encourage everyone to look down – as you never know what you might find at your feet.
I recently returned from an orchid-hunting tour of the Greek island of Rhodes. My travels there took me from arid coastal phrygana (a spiny, shrubby habitat) to steep mountainsides, via cool green shady olive groves and flooded river plains. Orchids prosper in almost every habitat. Rhodes was enjoying a remarkable spring, with some early species still in bloom and some later species coming into flower early. I had hit the orchid jackpot, a sort of enchanted, golden moment where not only were there more species than I’d ever seen all in flower at once, but there were in most cases hundreds of plants all around me.
I was there as a professional plant hunter, with a group of guests hoping I could show them these mesmerising, wildly variable plants. While of course I did just that, it was hard not to feel like a child in a sweet shop, surrounded by colourful and tempting things.
Take Ophrys orchids… They are insect mimics, with furry bodies evolved to physically attract pollinators, and scents that replicate pheremones released by insects – all of this to lure a bee or a wasp to pollinate them. They are incredibly diverse in shape, colour and form. Just like sweets, really – and, whenever I found a new species, with an adrenaline spike to beat any sugar rush one cared to mention.
From dawn to dusk I was looking for plants. My eye tuned into them and I found I could almost instinctively know where they would be in any given habitat. My journey to Rhodes was proving worthwhile – yet I was also noticing other travellers too. Migrant birds were arriving on the island in droves, while tens of thousands of painted lady butterflies streamed past me all day long, their wings battered and translucent from the long distances they’d already covered. These tenacious butterflies were all heading north-west, towards mainland Europe. It was time for me to follow their example.
Rhodes is home to many dozens of orchid species, and I returned to my Shetland home having seen over 40 different species. Unlike the plant collectors of old, all I took away with me were photographs. I left no trace of my passing, but came home with images that will sustain me until the next time.
Because with orchids, there’s always a next time…
About Jon Dunn
Jon Dunn is a natural history writer, photographer and experienced wildlife tour leader based in the Shetland Isles, but with strong links in mainland Europe and the Americas that see him travelling widely in search of memorable wildlife encounters.
An accomplished all-round naturalist and Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, Jon is the author of the critically acclaimed botanical bestseller “Orchid Summer” (Bloomsbury, 2018). The paperback version of “Orchid Summer” was released in May 2019. He is also the author of the “Britain’s Sea Mammals” field-guide (Princeton University Press). Jon writes weekly “Rarity Round-Ups” for Rare Bird Alert. His writing and photography feature in many popular wildlife magazines, including BBC Wildlife, Birdwatching, and British Wildlife, and he is the wildlife columnist for regional airline Loganair.
Meanwhile, Jon is never happier than when he’s out in the field with his camera trying to do justice to the wonderful wildlife he encounters on his travels; though sitting watching the sun set over the sea in his Shetland home while he writes about what he’s seen comes a very close second for his affections. Once stalked by a Mountain Lion whilst birding on the edge of Mexico’s notorious Sierra Madre Occidental, he generally prefers experiencing wildlife on his own terms and not as part of the food chain.