Orchids in Yemen [Archives:2000/11/Last Page]

March 13 2000

Part 2

Barbara Evans

When, in Sana’a, you face east and consider that the Arabian peninsula, which is bordered to the north by Jordan and the drier parts of Iraq, is mostly an extremely arid plateau of huge expanses of sand and rocky desert which seem devoid of vegetation of any sort, then the quest for and discovery of orchids would seem as bizarre as any story dreamed up by Dean Swift in Gulliver’s Lilliputian wonderland of three hundred years ago. However, if you face west and consider the magnificent green mountain ranges and looking beyond, as it were, over the Red Sea to Ethiopia, to the verdant mountains of Africa, then you begin to understand that Yemen is an interface, and the discovery of orchids would not be impossible. Here particularly, in the south western corner of Africa, the Ethiopian montane flora mingled with that of the northern Asiatic and European types before both the last great ice age, and the African and Persian Gulf rifts left indelible scars on the land.
In 1981 we had come to Yemen in ignorance, knowing nothing of the flora; but our saving grace was that we had lived in Ethiopia and explored its many habitant, whether finding in the southern Bali Mountains- albeit giant ones, walking through along under damp banks in the northern mountain gullies such as at Bole. Then again, whilst living in Kenya, we had seen geraniums and buttercups growing in upland moorland, alongside streams and tracks by forest edges. Later still, in Malawi wild lilies, delphiniums even brambles were clues to the cosmopolitan nature of these flora in general. Here too in highland grassland some even on top of Mount Mulanje, we had found over a hundred ground orchids, each almost specific to one habitat, so that in fact we came to Yemen with somewhat practiced eyes.
It was on one of our first trip out, to Jebel Raymah, in 1982 that the huge richness of the Yemeni flora became apparent. Climbing up across the giant terraces towards the top- the road was not then complete -wild roses, geranium and pelargonium entranced us, wild herbs perfumed our way. We did not realize that two of the known total of twenty two Arabian orchids had been found, only once, on this mountain, Disa pulchella, with colourful scarlet flowers and Habenaria clavicornis, a green orchid. Thus, with ‘rarity’ the name we ventured forth again from Sana’a and found not only orchids, but flowers, ferns and even fungi that held affinities with the great families of Africa, Asia and Europe. Cowslips and maidenhair fern grow coyly in the damp and sheltered mouths of caves; they border overhung springs along mountain paths, where man and beasts of burden -often a team of one donkey and one camel -take refreshment from crystal clear pools of ice cold water. Along the crevices and cracks above such springs we found to our amazement the one and only ‘Arabian’ orchids whose distribution spans continents, extending from the Himalayas to the mountains of Ethiopia and Afro-oriental region in Somalia. Although widespread it may be, its hold is but tenuous, for even in Cyprus and Europe it is a very rare orchid. This Epipactis veratrifolia, however, is one of the most widespread Yemeni orchids. The first time we saw it, was not on Raymah but bordering one of those narrow mountainside man-made channels which follow with purpose the cultivated, humid and sometimes richly overgrown, tree -shaded terraces to the east of Jabel and Nabi Shu’ayb. It is found among verdure and its green in habit when thus well watered. The otherwise green flower shows exotic traces of deep purple around the rim, and becomes pendulous with age. The whole plant fades with time to buffish yellow, which is in keeping with neighbouring grasses which are hay-like in drought, a fact we discovered when once more we found this plant in dry-season situations, flowers long gone, near Kawakaban, Bab al Ajjar and Bab al Ayn. Though not a spectacular plant it is a great survivor and unique indicator of times past.
The contrast in size of each of these locally rare orchids adds to the excitement of the quest. One could be forgiven for overlooking for the two six-inch orchids I’ve mentioned in my first article, Holthrix aphylla and Habenaria lefebureana, for their very size indicates elusiveness. But when twenty or thirty people walk past a group of brazen four or five foot green stems, a many-flowered spray of ‘traditionally’ orchidaceous flowers, pink, purple, white, a plant thought of by some, as “very beautiful”, and miss it- can there be forgiveness? We were out with the birdwatchers, who of all people might be considered observant (though beauty is in the eye of the beholder!). It was an unusually gregarious (for us) weekend in Taiz in 1989, and we were setting out for a walk a few miles west of the town. Lingering towards the back of the group, looking at one plant and another, and occasionally at birds, even we almost missed it as our gaze was fixed earthwards rather than the obverse; the orchid was at head- level, shoulder-level, eye-level. Yes! There is forgiveness, for after all, it was very perfectly entwined in a clump of cactus -like Euphorbia, and its lithophytic habit was unnoticed at first because the whole plant was so beautiful camouflaged as it sprawled on rocks, amongst the thorns. No dough this, and its universally drought resistant habit, its dry leathery pseudobulbs, and stiff leaves, is a major factor in its fairly widespread survival in Yemen. Its perfume, however, is unexpected and sweetly pleasant. A young Dutch friend with us, whose job it was, amongst others, to create an Herbarium, a Yemeni national collection, at their agricultural station near Dhamar, was ecstatic; so much so, that as a farewell present when, not long after, sadly we left the country, he gave us an enlarged and framed photograph of this lovely orchid.