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.