Abruzzo is one of the best places in Italy for wild orchid spotting, with some of the rarest species growing in the mountains. Two experts share their favourite walks and locations for discovering these rare fascinating plants.

Abruzzo truly is the perfect place to discover wild orchids. From April, May and into June the fascinating wild orchids, or orchidee spontanee as they are known in Italian, grace both the lowlands and the highlands on a scale you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

orchids in abruzzo
Lady’s Slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus).
Photo by Emilio Esteban-Infantes/Flickr

“The Majella National Park is home to over half of the wild orchid species found in Italy, boasting more than 80 varieties of the 150 Italian orchidee spontanee recorded,” says Marilena Del Romano, Doctor of Environmental Sciences, naturalist guide, and environmental educator at the Regional Nature Reserve I Sorgenti del Pescara. “Wild orchids are interesting for their diversity of size, shape, and colour. Some of these fascinating plants have developed highly specialised reproduction methods. Certain species are reliant on symbiotic relationships with fungi in order for the seed to germinate and grow. It is a slow and delicate process, which means that some orchids grow unseen underground for up to 15 years before they come into flower above the surface.”

Marilena says that this time of year you can go for a walk in the valley or up in the mountains and spot wild orchids in many places. “We walked through the fields by our house this week and spotted eight different orchid varieties in the space of just two hectares. For me, however, the place to see wild orchids in Abruzzo is around the town of Palena in the Province of Chieti. More than 60% of the orchid species found in the Majella National Park grow in Palena, equivalent to 35% of the total species found in Italy. If you are going to come across the rarest and certainly the most spectacular of our wild orchids anywhere, the Lady’s slipper, it is going to be there.” She adds that there is no one specific place that is better than another, so you have to simply get out and explore the tracks and trails within Palena comune. 

orchids in abruzzo
Elder-flowered orchid. Photo by Cristina Sanvito/Flickr

When Stuart Haines, author of two Cicerone Walking in Abruzzo guides, founder of the website Sulmona Valley Walks, and botany enthusiast, wants to see wild orchids this time of year, he heads to one of the most important historical trails that crosses the Majella mountain range, The Majella National Park’s “Freedom Trail” (Sentiero della Libertà).

The Majella National Park’s Freedom Trail is a two-day trail from Sulmona to Palena is marked on the park maps and on the waymarkers along the route with an “L” (for “libertà”). It follows ancient mule tracks that were used during the latter stages of World War II by prisoners fleeing from Campo 78 Prisoner of War camp in Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona.

orchids in abruzzo
Naked-man orchid. Photo by Stuart Haines

“Although you have the perfect opportunity to see a lot of wild orchids by walking the two-day trail, you don’t have to walk the entire route to enjoy the rich variety of orchids it offers,” says Stuart. “There are several sections of the path that are easily accessible to all, from where you can see a significant variety of the Majella National Park’s wild orchid species. Personally, I think that one of the best parts of the trail for spotting the orchids is by taking the first section of the Freedom Trail in reverse, the Sulmona – Cansano section.

“From San Donato church in Cansano, follow the “L” trail down provincial road S.P. 55 until you branch off on to the unmade track heading in the direction of Colle Mitra. You only need to walk the path for a kilometre or so, through the plain to be able to spot a number of different orchids. It is an ancient landscape that has lain undisturbed for centuries and, as a result, wild orchids have been able to flourish here. Just to the sides of the “L” path that cuts through the plain I have been able to spot a variety of species including, amongst others, the Lady orchid, the Monkey orchid, the Military orchid and the Bee orchid.”

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea). Photo by Anna Swann

Another orchid trail that Stuart recommends starts from the stunning medieval mountain town of Campo di Giove and passes through the Cerreto Plain. Because it is a fairly easy section of the path with no particularly steep inclines, it is ideal for all ages and abilities. “Again, for ease of access I would think about taking the Freedom Trail path in reverse,” advises Stuart. “This time the section from Campo di Giove back towards Cansano, starting from the picnic area just along from Campo di Giove station and heading through the forest. Within 1.5 km you can experience a wholly different display of varieties. The higher elevation here means that the habitat is quite different from that of Cansano, therefore there are very different orchid species to be found. Here you will come upon shorter, cropped varieties that grow well at higher altitudes, including the stunning yellow Elder-flowered orchids.”

If truth be told, there is no shortage of places at this time of year for discovering orchids in Abruzzo’s captivating wilderness. The most important thing is to get outside and start looking. With these recommendations, you now at least have a few options for where to start.

Remember that all wild orchids in Abruzzo are protected. You must never pick orchid flowers or remove them from their natural habitat.

The Majella National Park Authority has produced an excellent free guide to the orchids of the Majella National Park in Italian that you can download here.

A detailed free guide to Italian wild orchids in English can be downloaded here (click the green button “Download PDF”).

By Michelle Reid

Featured image: Bee orhid. Photo by Claude Dopagne/Flickr

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