Wild Motherhood (Orchid Hunting in Cyprus)

Words by
Angharad Johnson
Images by
Angharad Johnson
| July 3, 2018

Hunting wild orchids was not the first thing that sprang to mind when I entered the new world of parenthood. Not unlike Albert Millican, notorious orchid collector from the Victorian era, I was in uncharted territory. At the height of orchid fever, taking all precautions ahead of his perilous collecting trip to South American jungles, Albert infamously quipped: ‘I provided myself with a stock of knives, cutlasses, revolvers and pistols…’

One hundred years later I found myself on the cusp of my own adventure at the base of the rugged cliff lines of the Kyrenia Mountains in Cyprus. It was here that I provided myself with a stock of nappies, teething rusks, guidebook of local orchids and a bouncy baby boy in a backpack. As a sun-chasing Australian married to an Englishman, we opted to sea-change from our home in England during my maternity leave. Countryside greens and grey clouds were temporarily traded for blue Cypriot skies, golden fields, stray goats and intermittent internet. Our aim was to take life slower.

Orchid hunters - Angharad Johnson and her baby botanist.
Cyprus Bee Orchid (Ophrys kotschyi), endemic to Cyprus

Locals informed me that springtime in our new neighbourhood became a hotbed for wildflowers, including about thirty species of terrestrial orchid. Far from being an orchid aficionado, the stirring scenery and tales of castles, crusades and derring-do piqued my interest. As a gentle admirer I had often clocked them cello-wrapped in supermarkets or as background fodder in waiting rooms, yet I was still to observe one in its natural environment. On the birth of my son a friend gifted me a pretty moth-like Phalaenopsis, and I was relieved to discover I could better nurture my newborn than the orchid, watching it wilt rapidly on the windowsill.

My quest on Cyprus, though, was driven mostly by a husband tied up in remote work and long, lazy days to fill with a wiggly ankle-biter. Unlike Mr Millican, I faced little danger of head-hunters or mauling by jaguar here, rather only a constant smatter of drool and reminder of an oft-hungry baby.

Tipped by my guidebook, we first meandered to the byzantine Antiphonitis monastery nestled in the forest. After a peek inside at the twelfth century frescoes, my backpack botanist and I took a snack break on the grass where my gaze fell on a cluster of rare beauties; the endemic, near-threatened Cyprus bee orchid (Ophrys kotschyi), named after the Austrian botanist Karl Georg Theodor Kotschy, who studied the Cyprian flora from 1840 – 1862. Their colours seemed to mimic the church frescos inside with their velvety dark-purple and white splotches crowned by golden-green sepals. Once detected, as if by magic, I noticed more and more of these little clusters peppered between the dandelions.

My dribbly partner was more enthralled by his carrot stick but I was bewitched as I knelt to inspect them.

It felt like a beefed up game of ‘eye-spy’, a floral treasure hunt, and I grasped a small taste of the cultish frenzy induced by these odd-looking organisms.”

Or perhaps it was simply sleep deprivation and the high caffeine intake kicking in…

Monkey or Naked Man Orchid (Orchis italica)
Cyprus Bee Orchids (Ophrys kotschyi) hidden amongst the wildflowers of the region

Later, down a windy forest track, singing a rendition of ‘Incy-Wincy Spider’, I kept an eye low to the ground and came across another. From memory, I screeched the words ‘Jackpot!’, and this time I had struck upon a yellow bee orchid (Ophrys lutea). Locally common in Cyprus, I later became adept at detecting their butter-yellow petals on the forest roadsides or dotted through the grassy understories of the olive groves.

Over the weeks we gently wandered and wondered, stumbling on gems like the pretty lilac-pink pyramid (Anacamptis pyramidalis), fragrant bug (Anacamptis fragrans), monkey (Orchis italica) and woodcock orchid (Ophrys lapethica).”

More sharp-eyed, dedicated hunters than us could perhaps have tracked rarer specimens like the fan-lipped orchid (Anacamptis collina) or aptly named, one meter tall giant orchid (Himantoglossum robertianum), known only in a few guarded locations. These, like the wildflower season itself, slipped us by and life soon beckoned us back to England. Our little hobby came to a natural end.

Looking back, valuable orchids were one thing, but the onward adventure of motherhood remains the real prize.”

New parenthood unleashes many complexities but in those first precious years a simple thread is woven through it all. Your eyes are opened again to little curiosities and wonders as you slowdown with your toddler to inspect every leaf, flower and twig. Since that trip, my children have doubled, we’ve moved again (back to Australia) and the years have flashed past in a work-life blur. Said son has bloomed and grown like a rare species and now balances on the edge of double digits. Orchids, like teens, are deemed challenging to rear, but textbooks tell me that with some nurture, love and the right environment they will flourish.

So, I’ll crusade into the coming years, attempting to be a ‘cool’ mum; not over-inspect him like I did that first Cyprus bee orchid, rather, observe his wonder (and peculiar pheromones, no doubt) from afar. Recently, he issued a warning: ‘Hey Mum, you know in eight years I’ll be eighteen, and then I’m leaving home straight away to go backpacking!’ Time will surely tell, son, but perhaps one day we could journey back together to that rambling track to chase some elusive giant orchids. As for Albert Millican, his action-packed orchid pilfering fate is best left to the history books.

Monkey or Naked Man Orchid (Orchis italica)
Pyramid orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis)
Adventures of an Orchid Hunter by Albert Millican. Reproduced with permission from the State Botanical Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

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