Friday, 4 September 2009

Early Marsh Orchid

Early Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata)

The Early Marsh Orchid is very widely spread across Britain though it does not occur in abundance and has been lost from many areas. There are five subspecies of Early Marsh Orchid which have different coloured flowers and occur in different habitats.

Dactylorhiza incarnata subspecies incarnata is found in alkaline fens and marshy meadows. Its flowers are a unique shade of flesh or salmon pink unlike that of any of the other orchids found in Britain. The only other flower in Britain I can think of which is almost this colour is Tall Ramping-Fumitory which has pinnate leaves and could not be mistaken for an orchid. So perhaps D.i. subspecies incarnata is one of the few flowers that could be identified here by its colour alone. The flower spikes are often satisfyingly chunky, though sometimes it grows in leaner spikes.

Last year I found D. i. subspecies incarnata in a dune slack at Formby Point, Lancashire. Dunes might not be the first place you think of as alkaline or marshy. Chalk is a very ancient deposit of shells. Calcareous shell debris can collect on dunes and in the hollow between dunes - i.e. the Dune slack – which can be damp enough to support plants that require a damp habitat if part of the hollow falls below the water table.

Common Fragrant Orchid

Common Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea)

Formerly the Common Fragrant Orchid, Marsh Fragrant Orchid and Heath Fragrant Orchid were classified together. They were then separated into three sub-species before their current recognition as three distinctly different species.

The species do align with the habitats indicated by their name grassland in the case of the Common Fragrant Orchid, and marsh and health land in the case of Marsh and Heath Fragrant Orchids. However these habitats can overlap so details of the features of plants must be used. While there are differences between minimum and maximum heights of plants this is not an ideal defining character to use because their height ranges overlap. The characteristic I have found most useful is the differences in form of the lower lip of the flower. Look at this feature on several different plants in a colony to make sure that you are not using the one odd one in a group. There is some additional complexity in identification because Fragrant Orchids readily hybridise with each other leading to intermediates which are hard to identify because of similarity and because the defined identification characteristics are still being developed for these species.

Common Fragrant Orchid is found mainly on dry unimproved grassland on calcareous soils. It requires some grazing of the grassland to limit the development of scrub, but intensive grazing does not support this species so maintenance of its habitat is a fine balance.

It flowers from mid May to late July and the flowers occur in shades of pink from a near purple pink through to pale pink and with white varieties present too.

I scrabbled around the top of the North Downs above Wye and found a couple of single tatty plants. Heading straight down the steep slope crossed by terracettes I found hundreds of Common Fragrant Orchids. It was a still sunny day and the fragrance rose up from the flowers so strongly there was not need to stoop to smell them.

Common Twayblade

Common Twayblade (Neottia ovata)

Perhaps the Common Twayblade has a Nordic origin, courtesy of Nordic invaders, to its name with its current name in Swedish being TvĂ„ Blad meaning the same as the English word Twayblade – two leaves. This plant has two leaves clasping the base of the flower stem, or sometimes just two leaves present where there is no flower stem. Occasionally you might find the odd plant with three to five leaves, much as you might find a four-leaved clover. The stem is hairless below the two main leaves and lightly downy above the leaves. If you catch this plant early in the morning or late in the afternoon these tiny hairs give it a golden halo. Technically there are a few very small leaves higher up the stem above the main pair.

The Common Twayblade flowers from late April until early August. It is called Common because it is so widespread throughout Britain. Its wide spread is due to its resilient and adaptable nature. It does not occupy one specific habitat type and can be found in most habitats from woodland, grassland to dune slacks. Two common features in its distribution is that grows predominantly on calcareous substrates and will only tolerate mildly acidic soil. It also grows in areas that are relatively undisturbed – ancient woodland, unimproved grassland, heathland etc. Despite its wide distribution this plant is currently absent from 30% of its historical range, which would seem to be linked to the general loss of habitat that has occurred.

The flowers are the kind which a lot of people pass by unless directed to look more closely. The flowers are small and greenish, on closer inspection they are clearly shaped like a small person. The plants can be found singly or in dense clumps. These clumps arise from vegetative reproduction where shoots from the rhizomes develop into new plants. It takes from 7 to 20 or more years for a plant to reach maturity from seed. This slow developing is accompanied by longevity, plant have been known to exceed 40years of age. The flowers are so small that they can only be pollinated by small insects. Attracted by nectar these insects set of a sensitive trigger mechanism in which rapid secretion of a sticky quick drying liquid which sticks the pollinia onto the insect. This mechanism is highly efficient and results in high rate of seed setting.

This year I found Common Twayblades growing in ancient woodland at the base of the North Downs above Wye in Kent. Last year I saw them growing around pitches on a campsite in woodland in the Lake District and 6 weeks later in dune slacks on the north coast of Scotland.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Green-winged Orchid

Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio
Another early flowering orchid is the Green-winged orchid; Anacamptis morio which comes into bloom in mid April and is at its best in May. Seen from a distance the dark pink flower spikes have a resemblance to the Early Purple Orchid but once you have seen the green or bronze veins running through the hood of the flower you cannot mistake the Green-winged orchid for anything else.

While most plants flower a dark shade of pink, there are some which are pale pink and occasionally white (var. alba). When you find a colony it is worth taking time to look at different plants to see the different coloured flowers. This year I found Green-winged Orchids on the range walks at Lulworth Cove. There are plenty of them growing along the paths that you can see closely. Behind the fenced off areas there larger clumps of plants which include more of the paler pink flowering plants. I could only look at these distant plants through my binoculars as signs warn that straying off the paths could mean wandering over unexploded ordnance.

The profusion of these flowers in the ranges, when it has declined in most areas, is because the ranges have preserved its habitat. The Green-winged Orchid grows on unfertilised grassland where the grass is kept relatively short and free of encroaching woodland through grazing or mowing. It grows best on damp pastures and though I am not sure of the soil type or condition I know that the ranges are often swathed in mist coming off the sea even on the hottest days. The mist catches on vegetation and drips down to the ground making conditions more tolerable for plants which might otherwise not grow there.

With its need for unimproved grassland you will not find Green-winged orchid, or indeed many other plant species, in the strange pastures of recently seeded grass which are dominated by Rye Grass (Lolium perenne) and have dark green uniform appearance. Old grassland is more uneven in colouring and texture with different shades of green denoting different grass species, tussocks and wider leaves of other flowering plants throughout the sward. With the loss of this kind of grassland Green-winged orchids as well as many other plant species have become less common. Locations which have escaped development and therefore can still support this orchid include railway cuttings, churchyards, village greens and golf courses.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Early Spider-orchid

 Early Spider-orchid Ophrys sphegodesThis species of orchid is mainly found on the south coast of England in Dorset, Sussex and Kent and flowers from late March until early June. It has a preference for locations near the sea, largely on shortly grazed turf.

The Early Spider-orchids in Dorset appear earlier than those in Kent and Sussex. Early Spider-orchids usually have 2-7 flowers on a stem although some plants at Samphire Hoe in Kent have up to 17 flowers on a stem. Another feature which varies between colonies is the success of seed setting. They can self-pollinate but most pollination that takes place is carried out by pollinators, largely the male solitary bee, variations in seed setting could be linked to the absence of pollinators. Because Early Spider-orchids rarely reproduce vegetatively the colonies of short lived orchids depend on seed set from the low rate of pollination that does take place.

After a couple of sunny weeks in March I had a suspicion that the Early Spider-orchids would be out at the end of March at Dancing Ledge in Dorset. At this location the orchids are diminutive at 5-15cm high and with their green and brown coloration blend into the shortly grazed grass. A bit of sunlight helped to pick out the glowing green and brown flowers that looked as fresh as chocolate limes.

While they were out at the end of March in Dorset they were not yet flowering at Samphire Hoe in Kent. The Early Spider-orchids at Samphire Hoe are growing on the spoil heap created by the excavation of the Channel Tunnel. It seems that heavy ground disturbance may support the establishment of large colonies of this flower – perhaps by exposing buried seed to suitable conditions for growth. The Early Spider-orchids at Dancing Ledge are largely found between Dancing Ledge and Winspit Quarry, Durlston Park in Dorset also has them – all locations where there used to be large scale quarrying which has now ceased. At the end of April I found them at Samphire Hoe and they were indeed taller and clearly present in thousands. Samphire Hoe seems to be the easiest place to find them as when I went there were directions to the orchids up on a board. There were also wardens around who could also point them out if you manage to miss the thousands of flower spikes. The orchids are not far from the carpark and the paths are definately more wheelchair or pram friendly than a scramble around the quarry at Dancing Ledge.


Botanising around the world it always seems that orchids speak most strongly of the exotic. Yet here in Britain there are 56 species of orchid, augmented by hybrids and including those like the Ghost Orchid that may be extinct, or likely are here but their ephemeral flowers are only seen by passing bugs.

For me the appeal of orchids is in the succulence of the petals and the wide range of colours, spots, stripes and patterns with which the flowers are decorated. The ratio of flowers to leaves is more generous than with other plants. The varied beauty of the leaves can also be appreciated in their shades of green, spotted markings or even edged with miniature plants.

In setting out on the trail of all the wild orchids found in Britain I will be led across most of the habitats found in Britain. While some orchids, such as the Common Twayblade, will grow almost anywhere others exhibit strong preferences for bogs, heaths, grassland, dune slacks or woodland. So particular are the growing preferences of some that they may only be found in a distinct type of habitat for example pine woodland. There are spectacular orchid colonies which arisen because of human activities more recently in the building of the Channel tunnel, and industrial ground tainted with chemical waste and also ancient actions thousands of years ago such as the building of Iron Age hill forts. This versatility of orchids gives them the capacity to reflect the fragility of ancient habitats and also how humans can have a positive effect on the natural environment.

The adaptability of the Orchidaceae family, which is relatively young in evolutionary terms is one of the reasons why orchids are currently one of the biggest (joint with Asteraceae) and most widely spread plant families in the world. Some orchids can occur so commonly that they have local uses for people – in Nepal as cattle feed and in southern Europe the tubers are transformed into an iced dessert. Throughout the world vanilla weaves its seductive taste through soft drinks, vodka and ice cream.

Here in Britain there are few sites with thousands of flowering plants and picking the flowers or digging up plants cannot be justified. Once a flowering spike has been picked the plants will not produce any more flowers that year. Worse than picking the flowers is trying to move the plant as the complex relationships between orchid and fungi fail causing the plant to die.

With this blog I am hoping that people will be encouraged to get out and enjoy British orchids, surrounding plants and animals, hopefully feel motivated to participate in conserving their local patch and thinking about plants, animals and people in more distant habitats. If you can’t make it outside I hope you still enjoy this little exploration from wherever you are.