Amongst steppic vegetation and garigue on our islands we find, albeit rarely, the largest orchid in Europe which is aptly named Giant Orchid (Maltese: l-Orkida l-Kbira). This Orchid, which is native of central Europe and the Mediterranean- including Malta, is known in the scientific world as Barlia robertina.
The Giant Orchid is a tuberous perennial, which rarely reaches a height of 50cm. It has a stout solitary stem which is often steeped with purple or a reddish-brown. This orchid bears large, deep green leaves which are circularly arranged at the base of the plant. Between January to February fragrant flowers are borne on a tall cylindrical spike-like inflorescence- which carries more than 25 flowers. These flowers are composed of petals forming a helmet which are green, unspotted, or spotted pink or purple and a lower lip which is greenish or violet. This lip has a humanoid shape, with two short ‘arms’ and a central lobe spilt to form spreading ‘legs’. Following pollination, the Giant Orchid produces thousands of tiny seeds which are wind dispersed. These seeds however, as in many species of orchids, only germinate when they are infected by a soil fungus.
On our Islands, this orchid has adapted to our hot dry climate by surviving the summer months in the form of bulbs or seeds.
This plant is apparently edible, although there are no officials records of this being employed in Malta, probably due to its rarity, but was used as a source of food in nearby Sicily.
The Giant Orchid is a very rare species in the Maltese Islands and is considered to be a species of national interest and is consequently protected by national legislation and one should not collect, uproot or cut this orchid without prior permission from the Competent Authorities.