Don’t mistake a Giant for a Lady

I thought something was wrong. In my last post I mentioned a sighting of Lady orchids recently- with a picture – and I did say it didn’t quite match with other pictures of Orchis purpurea (Lady Orchid). That’s because it was no Lady, it was a Giant orchid (Himantoglossum robertianum). Since the subject of the post was not seeing things, overlooking  a giant seems quite appropriate.

No Lady, but Himantoglossum robertianum - really

No Lady, but Himantoglossum robertianum – really

There are some mitigating circumstances I’ll claim in my defence. The giant orchid has gone through a more bewildering variety of names than a wanted criminal.  It was first described by a French botanist with a fine name himself: Jean-Louis-Auguste Loiseleur-Deslongchamps (1774-1849). He was a doctor interested in the medical uses of plants, and named the orchid Orchis robertiana for his friend, G-N Robert (1776-1857), a botanist from Toulon. In French it can be listed as orchis géant, orchis à longues bractées, or Barlie, after Jean-Baptiste Barla (1817-96), a naturalist from Nice particularly interested in orchids . 

In 1967 it became known as Barlia robertiana – but though it is listed like this in many older Flora, including my favourite Wild Flowers of the MediterraneanBarlia does not exist any more as a valid genus name. In 1999 Pierre Delforge put the giant orchid into the Himantoglossum genus – this was resisted by most taxonomists till the name was accepted finally in 2009. If you’re confused by now you’ll be glad to know that I’ve no idea where the name of this genus came from. If you ever want to check what name is currently accepted, the authoritative list is on

I’ve also seen it listed as  H. longibracteatum, due to the long narrow bracts, longer than the flowers and pointing upwards, which are a distinguishing feature for this species,but this isn’t the accepted name now.

Close-up showing how the long bracts poke out of the inflorescence

Close-up showing how the long bracts poke out of the inflorescence

Secondly it does vary quite a bit in appearance: though the flowers are usually a deep pink with a white central area on the long lip, and purple stripes on the sepals, there are varieties which are white and green.

distribution of sightings of H. robertianum - map from tela botanica

distribution of sightings of H. robertianum – map from tela botanica

Thirdly, it is rare in France. It’s common in my area of the Hérault, but rare elsewhere and so several guides suggest it is protected. It is on the Red List of orchids in France which are threatened (along with 168 others) – but it’s judged to be at small risk of disappearance. Thanks to its underground tubers it can lie low if overgrown by taller garrigue plants or bushes, and can reappear when land is cleared of brush, or when overgrown verges are mown. It’s one of the earliest orchids to flower –from February to April.

Group of giant orchids by a mown roadside verge

Group of giant orchids by a mown roadside verge

Of course I’ll  try in future – as I always do –  to name flowers correctly – but it’s interesting chasing an identification, and I’ve learnt something about French botanists. I’ll go back and change the last post – I always do this if I discover a mistake.

All photos in this post were new ones taken by me this week, on 26th March.

Coming up next: the plant book everyone should read.





Filed under Himantoglossum, Orchis

3 responses to “Don’t mistake a Giant for a Lady

  1. Wendy Ogg

    Hi this is Wendy in Laurens (Jazz a Laurens) I have a friend who would love to be put on your email list, her email is Hope you are both well. Many thanks Wendy

    • Hi Wendy, good to hear from you. The easiest thing your friend could do is click on the button marked ‘Follow’ at the top of the column headed ‘Follow Blog by Email’ to the right of my blog home page. She’ll then get reminders by email of each post – and not only that. I’m thinking of announcing a giveaway to mark the first year of the blog in May, so she’ll get the mails and free gifts too! And so of course will anyone else who has signed up, or who will be signing up, to follow my blog.

  2. Pingback: Keep it in the ground | an entangled bank

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