Tuesday, 25 August 2009


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.

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