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.