A small island, in the middle of the Cyclades, impresses every naturalist with the abundance of rare wild orchids that grow on field terraces, ravines and slopes. If you ask an orchid lover about his next trip to Greece, he will probably tell you about famous orchid sites, such as Rhodes, Chios, Lesbos, Crete, Zagori or Olympus. From now on we have to add little Iraklia on the list. On this island of the Small Cyclades, with an size of only 18.1 square kilometers, grow 32 species of orchids, one of which is a narrow endemic species. With a typically Mediterranean climate, Iraklia has a wide variety of habitats: maquis, shrubs, abandoned fields, terraces, small plateaus, sparse olive groves, various crops, dense ravines, rocky and sandy beaches, coastal cliffs and caves. The result is an unexpectedly high biodiversity despite the small size of the island. Even if the traveler gets bored of orchids -if this is possible-, he can always observe migrating birds, reptiles, butterflies, other insects, the underwater world and a variety of rare plants that belong to the Cyclades flora.
An island full of orchids
A large network of paths that spread over than 20 km, allows visitors to access easily most orchid areas. Various species are found almost all over the island, from a few meters from the shore to the tops of the hills and every step can hide a surprise. However, the best habitat for the orchids of the island is the abandoned terraces, especially those of them that have a northern orientation. In these places the sun is relatively low on the horizon during the winter months, thus offering orchids the appropriate humidity and temperature to develop their leaves and the necessary protection from extreme conditions of permanent shade or seasonal dryness. At the same time, shrubs protect orchids from strong winds, rain, cold, strong sunlight and grazing animals. It is very common to see small orchids sticking out only their flowers through a brushwood with the entire sprout remaining hidden. Yet you don't have to search long. Orchids in Iraklia are almost everywhere.
A total of 20 species of the genus Ophrys are found on the island. These are Ophrys aegaea, Ophrys ariadnae, Ophrys basilissa, Ophrys blitopertha, Ophrys bombyliflora, Ophrys calypsus, Ophrys ceto, Ophrys ferrum-equinum, Ophrys gortynia, Ophrys heldreichii, Ophrys heracleotica, Ophrys icariensis, Ophrys iricolor, Ophrys israelitica, Ophrys omegaifera, Ophrys parosica, Ophrys parvula, Ophrys phryganae, Ophrys sicula and Ophrys tenthredinifera. The genus Anacamptis includes 5 species: Anacamptis collina, Anacamptis fragrans, Anacamptis papilionacea, Anacamptis pyramidalis and Anacamptis sancta. From the rest orchids grow 3 species of the genus Serapias: Serapias orientalis, Serapias bergonii and Serapias parviflora and also Orchis anatolica, Orchis anthropophora, Neotinea maculata and Spiranthes spiralis. All orchids bloom from late December to late May, depending on the species. An exception is Spiranthes spiralis, which blooms from mid-September to November. The “orchid of Iraklia" (Ophrys heracleotica), probably endemic to the island, stands out. A species morphologically between the lutea group and the fusca group, it is believed to be possibly a recent hybrid between Ophrys phryganae and Ophrys blitopertha. Many times her lip reminds the characteristic lip of Ophrys parosica. It blooms in large colonies from the end of February to the middle of April. Other important orchids are Ophrys ariadnae found mainly in Crete, the very rare Ophrys aegaea which has been found so far only in Amorgos, Karpathos, Kasos and Donousa, Ophrys icariensis which blooms in two waves, the rare Ophrys parosica, the beautiful Ophrys basilissa and the impressive Ophrys calypsus which is found in large numbers. On the island grow also three interesting subspecies of Ophrys ferrum-equinum, the varieties anafiensis, minor and subtriloba.
In Iraklia lives the naturalist and friend Yannis Gavalas, who carries out continuous recordings and discoveries of the flora and fauna of the island. The above text was based on the article "The orchids of Iraklia and Ophrys heracleotica" by Zisis Antonopoulos, Giannis Gavalas and Karel Kreuz published in "The orchids of Greece", Issue 1, January 2012.