Prickly Pear in flower

Prickly Pear in flower

27-04-2021Neville James-Davies

There may be snow in 'them there hills' at the moment, but elsewhere on the island, the plants continue to make their presence known. This is a good time of year to take a closer look at three pretty and characteristic plants - the Balearic Foxglove, Bird's Nest Orchid and the often-overlooked Prickly Pear. My first ever Balearic Foxglove was from the gorge leading to the entrance of Ternelles Valley on the Pollenca road.

I have visited this spot hundreds of times but only three years go did I actually take a closer look at a lone Foxglove growing amongst the limestone boulders up to my right. I could see the flowers were lighter in colour to the 'Digitalis purpurea' form I grew up with in the UK - and after checking in a local book I was delighted to learn it was the endemic Balearic Foxglove. I now find myself purposely looking for them. Mallorca certainly throws up many surprises. Digitalis dubia can sometimes be found in colourful groups, with the pink bells, spotted inside quivering on the slightest breeze.

At this gorge I spend several hours scanning above the high ridges for Black Vultures and Booted Eagles, and on occasions I have been lucky enough to see the pair of Egyptian Vultures that frequent the north Tramuntana's. There is a nice low wall which I lay down on scanning overhead. All around are the calls of Great Tits, Sardinian Warblers, Nightingales from the nearby wooded areas and the Blackbirds and occasional Blue Rock Thrush. The local Goats will be clambering amongst the rocks defying the laws of gravity and making your heart miss a beat as they walk perilously close to sheer drops.

I also know from experience to turn my car in the only spot possible in this narrow gorge which granted involves more than a three-point turn. I also get a sense of naughtiness when I see someone else who has driven up and realise it is a dead end, then discretely watch as the partner gets out to signal how far the driver can go forward, then moving to the rear of the vehicle to signal, or rather shout 'stop' when the car is too close to the rocks.

In front of them the little wall reveals a steep drop over the other side, and the sheer concentration on the drivers face and white knuckles do give me a chuckle - I know that feeling, I've been there and done that. But with all that aside, the Foxglove sits nestled away about ten foot up amongst the rocks, so a bit of careful climbing is needed for a closer look. That's one thing I like about the flora of Majorca, there are some great endemic plants, with several of interest in the Boquer Valley too - including the Hedgehog Plant and Balearic St John's Wort.

Birds Nest Orchid

The Holm Oak forests are an ideal habitat in which to search out this colourless orchid, but it can take some finding and is easy to walk past. It can blend in very well with the leaf litter and soil cover. They can grow to 16 inches tall and each shoot can carry up to 60 flowers. Their nutrition derives from a mycorrhizal fungus found in the soil and the leaf litter, which in turn derive their nutrients from the trees.

As I say, they lack any colour generally found in orchids, with plants being beige-brown and occasionally having yellowish or even white forms. The Latin binomial Neottia nidus-avis derive from a comparison of the tangled roots of the plant to a bird's nest hence why it gets its name.

They will flower around May to June but the shoots should soon be protruding from the forest floor. They require deep humous and shady places. Small flies will visit the plant but it mainly relies on self-pollination. It is believed to be able to flower, pollinate itself and even produce seeds underground. The flowers themselves require you to crouch down and look closely, then you will appreciate the helmeted little figures with clown-like upturned legs.

Nothing looks more magical when looking at this plant than when the Sun penetrates the canopy and they gleam an eye-catching gold colour. This is the one orchid I really enjoy seeing, partly because it can be so hard to spot and partly because it has no colour yet has a beautiful look to it in its own way.

Of course, finding this elusive orchid requires going into the deeper parts of the forests, where around you there will be some bird song to motivate you as you search. Chaffinches and Blackbirds will always be giving out their territorial songs, but listen closely for the call of the Firecrest, the tiniest resident bird on the island weighing less than a bag of crisps. The Nightingale will serenade you as you go by and May can be the time when a Golden Oriole passing through may have stopped off to feed and occasionally give out their distinctive song.

On occasion I have heard the soft purring of the Turtle Dove on the edges of the Holm Oak forests, and every now and then a Speckled Wood butterfly will drift past. Now may well see some early migrants, so it is worth looking for Chiffchaffs, Wood Warblers, Bonelli's Warbler, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers. Besides, if you are finding the day a little hot, then this can be a good time to go into the forests in search of the Bird's Nest Orchid - and take advantage of the shade and cooler air.

A prickly encounter.

Well, it is true, the Prickly Pear does indeed hurt when you get too close to it. Flowering from April to July, it was introduced into Europe as a hedge plant, animal feed and a source of fruit after the discovery of America. It has however since become naturalised in certain areas, and rocky sites close to urbanisation are good places to see them. What I love about these plants are their bright eye-catching flowers which can be red or yellow or a mixture of both.

I also like seeing how they grow out of the cracks of boundary walls adding a splash of colour to the local rocks. Derelict buildings or little storage stone buildings in the middle of a field nearly always seem to have one growing on or around it. What I don't like about them is getting too close when looking for butterflies or insects and forgetting they have tiny thorns on them .

I have (not so) fond memories of this when walking along the narrow path to a viewing platform at S'Illot near the Albufera, where a Wall Lizard was basking on the low wall behind a Prickly Pear. I moved closer trying to get a decent picture of it, which I did, but when it disappeared amongst the rocks, I edged closer thinking for some daft reason it would still be visible. Then the plant reminded me of the spikes, and with a sudden sharp pain I stood bolt upright rubbing my leg, much to the amusement of several in the group I was guiding at the time.

The fruits are edible but care is needed when peeling them. The numerous flowers are 5 - 10cm across with the spines up to 2.5cm in length, and yes, they do hurt. At the Albufereta Marsh in the north, there is one large Prickly Pear that grows out of the top of the dry stone wall made from the local volcanic rock, with another large specimen growing at the base of a stone building, and almost every time I go to look at it, there is either a Stonechat or a Sardinian Warbler around it, no doubt picking at insects, but it is always the same, some bird or another will be there.

This particular spot I actually love, as Clouded Yellow butterflies are always around here and the resident Corn Bunting uses the tops of the Tamarisks to give out its 'jangling keys' song. Hydrobia Snails litter the ground and this is a favourite spot for me to search out both the Giant Orchid and Barbary Nut at certain times of the year.

So, looking for orchids can be exciting in many ways, from their beautiful colours, or lack of them, to their strange shapes and scents, and taking a closer look at the endemic plants is always a nice feeling and listening to the bird song abounding in the same areas, and taking a closer look at the beautiful flowers of the Prickly Pear - but not that close.

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