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.