The Helleborine orchid, Epipactis veratrifolia, is a very rare terrestrial orchid in Israel whose distribution on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea is limited to two sites, both of which are nature reserves in the area of Ein Gedi. The Dead Sea has been shrinking in size significantly over the last few decades with the water level decreasing by approximately 1 meter each year. The vegetation in the immediate vicinity is having to adapt to major changes in underground water levels and overground water courses. The result is that this floral treasure is on the verge of extinction in this area.
The Helleborine orchid does not have the resplendent blooms of the Moth orchid, which is one of the most popular houseplants worldwide, but does carry a very intriguing secret that has been recently discovered! Its flowers smell like…aphids! In fact they mimic aphid alarm pheromones (chemicals used for communication) to attract hoverflies for pollination. The young hoverfly larvae are aphidophagous (feed on aphids), so the female flies lay their eggs where they sense there is (or should be!) a large concentration of aphids. The Helleborine flowers, however, do produce small amounts of nectar so that the flies are not unrewarded for their important role in transferring pollen sacs from one flower to another.
The story of this orchid is yet another instance of the complexity and wonder of creation:
“O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all”
(Psalm 104 v.24)
Over the past two and a half years seeds of the Dead Sea Helleborine orchid have been germinated and the resulting plants have been returned to their natural environment. If upon your visit to Israel you are curious to see this humble but special orchid then visit the lowest nature reserve in the world(!) at Einot Tsukim near Qumran and ask the wardens to show you!
Photos by the author who also propagated the plants for the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority.