Saturday, 27 November 2010

Fortress Conservation

Traditionally conservation was about creating boundaries between people and areas that were considered to be untouched nature. Those boundaries could take the form of people not being allowed access at certain times, or restricted access in terms of behaviour e.g. staying to paths or not picking plants.

There are a variety of reasons why that kind of conservation doesn’t necessarily work but a particularly interesting reason in relation to orchids in Britain is that a lot of the habitats that specific orchids grow in are not natural habitats and have in fact been created by man and need the continuing intervention of people to maintain them.

Early-purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) favour lightly shaded woodland. This kind of woodland tends to be woodland that is managed by people with activities such as coppicing maintaining a light canopy under which plants flourish. Likewise Green-winged Orchids (Orchis morio) favour damp pastureland, Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) grow where grass is kept short by sheep or a light mowing regime.

The interaction between people and the environment creates landscapes that while serving a purpose for people also harbours wild species. UNESCO has expanded from sites of natural or cultural heritage to include the concept of cultural landscapes – landscapes that are created by the interaction between people and the environment

Traditionally the area of orchid spotting is embroiled in secret; those who disclose locations of rare plants do so with the risk of incurring disapproval from the rest of the orchid community. Historically plant collecting did contribute to a decline in some orchid species. There are also current examples of the open disclosure of orchid locations resulting to a raid by a plant collector - for personal or resale purposes – digging up plants.

However conservation needs to the input of people who are not botanists or experts – just average people to support maintenance of management schemes that foster particular flora and protection of specific areas from development through donation of their time, voice or finances. It seems unwise and unfair to request support from people who are then excluded from seeing some of these special plants because there is an assumption that people outside of the circle of expertise are untrustworthy.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Autumn Lady's-tresses

The Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) are out now and seeing these flowers is the last hurrah of the summer. At a time of year when most plants have set seeds these small orchids are just bursting into fresh flowers.

 In Wild Flower Key Rose and O'Reilly describe the flowers as coconut scented. They are but I have only ever picked up the smell at the end of the day as the sun is starting to set. In the morning or middle of the day they have always remained unscented.

The species name of “spiralis” describes the arrangement of flowers in a spiral up the stem. A hand lens or magnifying glass makes it possible to appreciate the crystalline petals that appear through the lens as fresh and crisp as fresh snow. The sparkling white of the petals is further enhanced on a sunny day when light catches the fine layer of downy hairs that cover the ovaries.
There are two distinct kinds of leaves on the plants. Small scale like leaves are on the flower stem. Near to the flower stem you may discern a small rosette of blue-green leaves that carry out most of the photosynthesis for the plant.
Autumn Lady’s-tresses flower from August to September. They are found on calcareous grasslands or sandy dunes. I have found them most often on chalky grassland by the coast. I have heard of colonies growing in graveyards that are lightly maintained by mowing – allowing a short but not overly cropped grassy sward.
At only 7-20cm high when flowering they are not easy to spot. Stopping to look closer at what appears to be a short grass flower head can often lead to their discovery. The fine details of the white petals with the lower lip marked with a green centre are only discernable at close range.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Monkey Orchid

Monkey Orchids (Orchis simia) lost their habitat through downland being turned over to arable farming. The bright and charming flowers were also unfortunately tempting to pick. Loss of seed setting from flower picking further reduced populations of this lovely plant in the 1930’s. These factors led to its current conservation status of being specifically protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

I went to see it at a site where it has been successfully introduced in Kent. Because of concerns over the vulnerability of the remaining Monkey Orchids in Kent seeds were collected and scattered in 10 sites considered ideal for Monkey Orchids. While Monkey Orchids did not grow in 9 of those sites in the one I visited they have flourished. It is a sheltered sloping field and when I visited at the end of May the grass was covered by cowslips and emerging Monkey Orchid buds.

The flower has a small tail. It is made monkey like by the upturned ends to the side petals lobes of the lip. Currently the plants are found in a few locations in East Kent and Oxfordshire. It grows on well drained chalky soils with a sunny aspect on fields or the edges of woods.  They flower from the end of May into June.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Bog Orchid

Looking for the smallest orchid in Britain, the Bog Orchid (Hammarbya paludosa), is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Reaching a maximum of 12 cm high and often as small as 3cm high it is hard to spot, particularly as the whole plant is green.

From experience it is best to see this plant with a knowledgeable guide. Last year I tip toes around some likely bogs with a bird watching friend and my dog. The dog pranced around and found it particularly exciting when he landed in unexpectedly deep pools of water. I found a few interesting species including Dorset Heath, but no Bog Orchids.

This year I signed up to join in surveying Bog Orchids with the Dorset Flora Group. By the time my day for surveying was due good weather meant all the surveying was completed. However the organiser kindly gave me specific directions for where to find these tiny orchids.

Bog Orchids flower from late June to late September flowering earlier in hot summers and later in cool summers. Sun light electrifies the green plants and makes them stand out against the surrounding vegetation which is usually Sphagnum moss. Bog Orchids grow in bogs where there is some flow of water, not in stagnant water. Around the edges of the leaves there is often a fringe of minute green bulbils. These will detach and in ideal conditions develop into new plants.

Bog Orchids are found in Wales, Scotland and Ireland and in a few locations in England restricted to the south west and very north. Growing in bogs it is best if you wear wellingtons when you look for them unless you love getting wet feet.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Fly Orchid

The shape of the flower of the Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera) has evolved to attract winged insects; specifically male digger wasps. Perhaps if the pollinator was known before the plant had been named it would more awkwardly be called the Digger Wasp Orchid.

The last weekend in May, Denge Wood in Kent was full of natural history groups. I was out with a group from the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), we bumped into the Faversham Natural History group and saw hordes of photographers carrying lots of photography gear; tripods, reflectors etc. The attraction is that Bonsai Bank is a great location for orchids and butterflies. A few of us also saw a glow worm crossing the path which is not uncommon there.

Having been told that there were some Fly Orchids near the path one of my companions said he would not look for Fly Orchids but would find them by spotting the trail trampled through the grass that the other group would have left. Fly Orchids are hard to spot and groups of interested people do trample paths to get to what they want to look at. Should we take off our shoes and then we might me more careful about where we step?

Fly Orchids range from Kent to Cumbria in their distribution, but within that range they are restricted to specific areas such as the North and South Downs in Kent. They grow in open grass, well lit woodland edges and scrub. The common factor is the alkaline pH that they favour.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Man Orchid

There were a couple of Man Orchids (Aceras anthropophorum) on the same site at Wye in Kent as the Lady Orchids. While the Lady Orchids were easily seen from a distance it took careful searching through the grass by a companion who knew Man Orchids were somewhere there to find them. At about 20cm high and with a slender raceme of greenish flowers these orchids blend into the grass.

The flowers are quite anthropomorphic as beneath the hood of the flower the lip hangs down split into arms and legs. The hood is yellow-green and the lip is yellow and sometimes edged in red.

The Man Orchids were growing in an area of shade free grass, but they can also be found in open woodland and scrub. When I saw them at the end of May they were in an optimum condition with all the open flowers fresh and some buds still too open. They flower from May – June, as always flowering times can vary according to location, temperatures and previous rain fall. Bearing in mind how cold the winter was it is likely that next year with milder winter temperatures and a little more rain they could have peaked by the end of May.

The Man Orchid is considered endangered and we only found two in flower on the site. It is likely that there were more plants there either not flowering or unnoticed in the sward. Growing nearby were two other green flowered plants with similar leaves; Twayblade Orchids and Common Adder’s-Tongue ferns forming a thick carpet.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Lady Orchid

The Lady Orchid (Orchis purpurea) is Nationally Scare and very much a Kent speciality. So I went to Kent at the weekend to join in a walk with the BSBI (Botanical Society of the British Isles) to see the Lady Orchids, as well as some other interesting species which thrive in the North Downs.

Lady Orchids flower from late April to June and are currently blooming furiously. The hood of the flower is coloured by dense dark lines and the white lip is marked by dots which on closer observation are clusters of coloured hairs. Most flowers had dark maroon hoods. Some were such a dark shade of purple that they were almost black. Some had paler markings in shades of pink to white.

The height of the flowers varied from below knee height to 100cm high. We saw them in two different locations both were a combination of light shade and grassy surround near trees. Lady Orchids are generally found in open woodland or along the margins of woods.

A few flower spikes had clearly been nipped off leaving a stump of the flowering stem and the leaves. Hopefully this had been done by slugs or deer rather than someone picking the whole flowering stem of this rare British flower. There was one spike snapped off on the grass. It could have been trampled by a deer. Though given the number of orchid twitchers and photographers tramping along the woodland paths it seems far more likely that it was a careless step or foolishly placed piece of equipment.

Lady Orchids are reputed to smells of vanilla. there was a consensus among the group that while the flowers had an aroma which was not unpleasant it was certainly not vanilla.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Early-purple Orchid

The dark purple, almost blue, racemes of Early-purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) flowers can be visible from a distance. It flowers from April- June (early July in Scotland) and grows in a variety of habitats from grassland to deciduous woodland. The shape and colour of the flowers may be confused with Green-winged Orchids. However, the Early-purple Orchid has large dark spots on the leaves and the Green-winged Orchid's leaves are unspotted. Green-winged Orchid also has parallel green veins on the side petals of the flowers.

Early-purple Orchid is considered an Ancient Woodland Indicator. This means that it is characteristic of the vegetation community found in ancient woodlands. In the picture above the Early-purple Orchids are growing with Wood Anemone, Perennial Dog's-mercury and Bluebells; all classic Ancient Woodland Indicators in Britain. This community of plants tells you about the long history of woodland growing in that location. I saw these orchids in Garston Wood, a nature reserve that has been maintained by regular coppicing. The ancient woodland habitat supports a high level of biodiversity; 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity see for further information.

Early-purple Orchids are referenced in Shakespeare's Hamlet. I think a more interesting association between people and plants in this case is that Early-purples used to be consumed as a drink called Salep in Britain. Salep is still made in Turkey. While Early-purple Orchids can be common in some areas of Britain they do not grow in enough abundance to justify using them to make a drink. If someone was to start cultivating them as a commercial crop, int he way Vanilla the more familiar orchid we eat is cultivated, it would be a magnificent sight.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Marsh Helleborine

Looking for a clump of Marsh Helleborines (Epipactis palustris) I had seen earlier without my camera I started to think that I wouldn't find them again.

Then I realised that what I had thought was a silvery blaze of creeping willow leaves was in fact thousands of orchids. The Marsh Helleborines were clearly thriving in a large dune slack and it was certainly a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees

Dotted amongst the predominant Marsh Helleborines I found a few other orchids - Common Twayblade and Early Marsh Orchids. There were a lot of Bumble Bees taking advantage of the mass of flowers. The nature reserve at Formby Point Lancashire is so full of flowers that even on a grey summer's day it feels colourful.

Perhaps Marsh Helleborines are the most striking flower native to Britain even when seen on one plant; the spectacle of thousands is very impressive . They are very particular about their growing conditions and flourish in calcareous damp conditions such as fens and dune slacks.

Marsh Helleborines are readily recognisable as an orchid because they are the British native orchid that most resembles the dense flower head of Cymbidium orchids that florists use. N.B. despite the presence of large colonies, don't be tempted to pick them. The orchicds growing in Britain have legislative protection and Marsh Helleborines are one of the species with additional protection because they are declining. (Explanation of legislation coming soon.)

Monday, 22 February 2010

White Common Fragrant Orchid

The Common, Marsh and Heath Fragrant Orchids were only recently recognised as separate species. (They are differentiated by the proportions of the petals in particular the lower lip lobes, and some differences in habitat preference. The clearest indicator for me that this was a Common Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea) and not a Marsh Fragrant Orchid or a Heath Fragrant Orchid is that ‘wing’ petals on the sides of the flowers are pointed, narrow and angled downwards.

The first Common Fragrant Orchid I found on the North Downs in Kent did smell - I would say sweet more than particularly fragrant, and as there was only one flowering stem I had to get down to ground level to detect it. Heading off the path I found a colony of hundreds - smelling them before I could see them as in large numbers the smell is almost overpowering.

Most of the orchids in the colony were shades of soft pink and there were a few flowering white; Var. albiflora.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Bee Orchid

Early in the morning when the dew was still on the grass I would walk across the lawn looking for ghostly pink petals and swollen buds caught like moths in the grass. Many years before there had been a small Christmas tree plantation occupying the spot. After two years of giving everyone we knew Christmas trees it was time to get rid of the barren evergreen clump.

Within a year there were a few cowslips flowering in the grass that sprung up. We started by staking the cowslips with canes to mow around them, until one year there were too many cowslips to stake and all the grass was left uncut. Given the chance to flower in June and July we realised that for years dust like orchid seeds had waited in the soil until they had the opportunity of a grassy sward left uncut.

The lips of these orchids are fantastically velvety and do bear a passing resemblance to bees. Because the flowers are a reasonable size and many of the different parts of the flower are clearly differentiated by colour they are a useful flower to look at to get to grips with the structure of orchid flowers. Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera) grow in open grassland and will quickly colonise disturbed soil, rapidly increasing in number. Although they do not compete well with other plants if the sward becomes too closed they can be found in permanent grassland colonies.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Pyramidal Orchid

The first orchid I learnt the name of. Its bright flowers are easily spotted, often in profusion by roads and the shape of the dense cone of flowers makes the name easy to remember. As more buds open the flowering stem becomes more globular or cylindrical. It remains easy to identify as there are two raised ridges on the base of the flower lip which is unique to this species. It is pollinated by moths and butterflies and the ridges on the petal guide the proboscis to trigger the pollination mechanism.

Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) grows in well drained soil that has calcium in it – from chalky grasslands to sand dunes. It is an early coloniser of new habitats and as such the stirred up soil of roadworks can be ideal. It grows in England mostly in the south central area and not further north than Yorkshire – exhibiting a preference for milder climates. It grows in grass which is close cropped and also where the grass grows taller, the flower still distinctive because of their eye catching colour and shape. It can flower as early as May and as late as August but mostly it flowers from mid-June to mid-July. In Kent and Dorset last year they were fully flowering by mid-June and certainly past their best before mid-July.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Lizard Orchid

Nearly waist high the long flower spike of a Lizard Orchid I found was unmistakeable. Their height varies from 25-90cm. With nearly half the stem covered in the grey-green flowers there is nothing else it could be. Each flower has an elongated twisted lower lip which quivers in the slightest breeze.

The Lizard Orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum) grows on chalk grassland. In England they are at the limit of their range and found only on 19 sites mostly in the south-east it is a plant you are most likely to need to travel to see. 6 of its sites are golf courses – there is some speculation that their seed is being distributed on golfer’s shoes.

Flowering from early June to mid July the one I found in Sandwich Bay, Kent was past its peak. Their growth period is September – April , and flower buds are formed over two growing seasons so abundance of flowers is determined by rainfall over a two year period.

Bird’s-nest Orchid

“That dead looking thing is an orchid?” Even at the height of freshness the flowers of the Bird's-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-arvis) are pale brown not exciting unless you know that this is not commonly found, and an unusual plant which derives its nutrients solely from fungi.

The name refers to the roots which are reputed to resemble a bird’s nest. I have not seen this myself since I haven’t dug one up and don’t intend to.

The Bird’s-nest Orchid grows in woodland, particularly beech woodland, on chalk soils. It grows where there is a deep layer of leaf mould and the soil is damp but not water logged. It flowers from early May until early July and is more abundant in warm wet springs. Flowers may set seed underground if the flower stem is obstructed from reaching the surface – for example by a rock.

As a saprophyte with no need for chlorophyll or leaves to gain energy from sunlight its leaves are reduced to sheathing scales on the stem. Hard to spot until you know what you are looking for in the leaf litter it found across Britain, especially south-central England.