La Foresta Umbra: the ghosts in the Gargano

It was 29th June 2016. Puglia was suffocating under a heatwave, but on Mount Spigno, the third highest peak of the Gargano peninsular, the beech trees offered some glorious shade and cool.

Luigi Palladino and Giovanni Russo were walking at around 800 metres above sea level, with all the gravity of William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk (from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose), discoursing in the botanical lingo known only to a few. They were swapping roles, both variously playing master and apprentice. It was the work of a moment. Beneath a bed of fallen beech leaves” the two of them glimpsed the incredible. An apparition like Our Lady of Fátima to St Bernadette; like a truffle-hunter finding a truffle weighing a kilo; like Captain Ahab spotting Moby Dick. Our two walkers came to a halt, their breath taken away, unable even to draw a gasp of amazement at the tiny, fragile creature that lay beneath their disbelieving eyes. An Epipogium aphyllum Sw., or rather, the rarest of the rare, the Ghost Orchid.

That’s how we’ll call it in this article, the Ghost orchid. It exists, but you never see it. It can complete its entire life cycle without ever once rearing its head from the soil. You’ll only ever catch sight of it when it’s blooming, which it does at intervals of years or even decades. It is impossible to imagine the shiver that ran down the spines of Russo and Palladino when they stumbled upon this bright, tiny, leafless flower, standing some ten centimetres high. No sighting of it had ever been recorded in Puglia. It was as beautiful as the Madonna; as vast, despite its smallness, as a leviathan. The events went straight into the annals of the Italian Botanical Society, which records around ninety species of orchids in the area between the Tremiti islands and the Dauni mountains, the highest orchid concentration in all Italy.

But then, strange things happen in the Gargano National Park, in the Umbra Forest. Mysteries, apparitions and disappearances, all entirely in keeping with the place’s name. For in Latin, umbra means two things, “shade/shadow” and “ghost”. On the one hand, it evokes the freshness of those woods which we can never know inside out, the home of “ancestral terrors and fears that must not be named”. The home of wolves, who, as trap-cameras confirmed, returned here at the start of the millennium to forage in the undergrowth, after more than half a century of persecution encouraged by the Kingdom of Italy (wolves’ heads fetched as much as those of outlaws in the Wild West) and by Perrault’s fables. Poor wolves. Or poor shepherds. It depends on your point of view regarding the intraspecific conflict, as the experts call it, between wolf and man – not to be confused with that other, more intransigent concept, homo homini lupus, “man is wolf to man”. Less scary, but no less ghostly, is the Italian roe deer, gliding serenely through the Umbra Forest, as elusive as the Ghost Orchid and the white lupin. It does not approach humans, of whom it remains intensely suspicious, despite its status as a protected species.

Same with the wild cat, Italy’s own Bagheera, stockier than its domestic cousin, with thicker fur. Its coat is a streaked grey, and its magnificent long tail tapers to a black point via a series of dark rings.

Wolves, deer, wild cats and wild orchids: they all rub shoulders with the other wildlife that spawns and snuffles in the shadow of the 50-metre tall beech trees, which since 2017 have stood within a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a lesson in how best to approach Puglia’s little Amazon forest, which has finally been spared the worst that humanity can inflict. And the lesson is: leave no trace.

With thanks to Giuseppe Albanese, faunist and naturalist, for his ever generous and attentive guidance.