The French air base grows hundreds of species of plants, including rare orchids

The world’s largest collection of rare orchids has been discovered along the runways of a military airfield in Corsica, France. The estimated number of Serapias neglectedor Devil’s Tongue, is 155,000.

The protected orchid species flourished around the base after taking advantage of the secure site and gardening protocols, according to a study published in the Journal of Biodiversity Data.

The orchids are only found in southern France, Italy and along the east coast of the Adriatic Sea, but over time their numbers began to decline. They are now classified as “Near Threatened” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s global and European Red Lists. However, these rare flowers seem to have found a perfect place to grow, away from the 3 million people who visit the Mediterranean island every year.

Rare orchid Serapias Neglecta in Corsica
Serapias Neglecta, a rare orchid discovered at Solenzara Air Base in Corsica, France. This is the world’s largest collection of the rare orchid.
i Margaux Julien Ecotonia

“Military bases are important areas for biodiversity because they are closed to the public, have little pollution, and often have high biodiversity due to their soils, which are often poorly fertilized and left untreated by old facilities,” says co-author Bertrand Schatz, of the Center for Functional Ecology and Evolution (CEFE).

The rare crop of 155,000 flowers was discovered by researchers while surveying plant diversity at Solenzara Air Force Base in eastern Corsica. They believe that keeping the military base closed is particularly favorable for the development of these orchids, which grow around the runways and lawns. For safety reasons, the meadows around the base are mowed regularly, creating an environment with sparse vegetation where the orchids thrive with little competition. The base is also on the old Travo riverbed, which favors low vegetation and offers rocky ground just a few inches below ground.

“The case of S. neglected is particularly noteworthy as this species benefits from national protection status and is a subendemic species with a very local distribution worldwide,” said Schatz.

Rare orchid Serapias Neglecta in Corsica
A closeup of the rare Serapias Neglecta orchid at Solenzara Air Base in Corsica. The protected orchid species bloomed around the base after taking advantage of the safe site and gardening protocols, according to a new study.
Julien M, Schatz B, Contant S, Filippi G 2022

But the orchids aren’t the only rare species taking advantage of the airbase’s protected environment. A total of 552 plant species were recorded by the researchers, 19 of which are protected in France. Within 1,360 acres, 23 percent of Corsica’s common plant species have been identified, including 12 other orchid species. Among them were very rare and endangered plants such as Gratiole and Anthemis arvensis subsp. incrassata, a subspecies of corn chamomile.

Many of these species have all but disappeared from the Corsican coast, a popular tourist destination that is becoming increasingly urbanized. The difference between these areas and the military base shows how important it really is to protect these species.

“If logistical developments are carried out on this basis, they must favor the preservation of this extraordinary floristic biodiversity and in particular this particularly rich orchid,” said Schatz. “Military bases are a great opportunity for species conservation and would benefit from enhancing their natural heritage.”

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News. The French air base grows hundreds of species of plants, including rare orchids

Rick Schindler

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