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.