Local Orchidaceae

It’s now the seventh year of managing my hillside former paddock as a wild flower meadow, and one of the most interesting things is seeing how plant species gradually colonise and replace what was mainly grass and buttercups when ponies occupied it. Before grazing it had been covered in bracken for years.

Amongst the more exotic (though native) types are the orchids, and this year I have for the first time recorded four species, which I photographed for your edification this morning. Two species appeared during the first summer, 2015, and the most dramatic, the bee orchid, first turned up in 2019. I wrote about its rather fascinating biology then.

Last year, though, we had a prolonged dry spell in the spring, and apart from about two scrawny bee orchids in a different spot from before, there was not much to see except spotty dead leaves. Nature seemed to have come out in support of lockdown – even the glow-worms were a no-show in 2020. But this year nature has done her thing in style, old seeds have germinated, and all three species are growing in greater profusion than ever before.

In particular the finicky bee orchids seem to have spread all over the field, which leads me to wonder if they have a particularly effective seed dispersal system, and also how the particular fungus they apparently need in order to germinate has spread for hundreds of feet on all directions in just a year or two. It may, of course, be simply that the soil conditions are gradually returning to nature’s preferences.

Then yesterday, on the woody bank bordering the field, I found a late example of a fourth species, the early purple. I’ve seen these growing a quarter of a mile away down the lane in each direction, but this seems to be a first on my patch, at least since we’ve been here. Most of the neighbourhood examples are on their last legs, having emerged over a month ago. Mine was still fresh yesterday – and I should have photographed it then as it’s now past its best.

Here is your Hump Guide to the four species:

Early purple orchid

Distinguished by being (usually) the first to appear here. Leaves are usually black-blotched, but not on this one. Central sepal forms a hood, and the outer two are held up like a spook to scare off rabbits (I suppose…)

Southern marsh orchid

Plain leaves, and seems to grow a darker purple here than in the books. Evidently it doesn’t only like marshes, because we’re on well-drained greensand here. But they do seem to wilt quicker than the rest in dry weather, and there are seldom more than about three or four in the whole meadow in a year.

Heath spotted orchid

Pretty similar to the common spotted orchid, except that that grows on lime, and this likes acid. They’re a nostalgic reminder of our old home in Essex, where they grew by a stream in the wood. In a year or two more, I think the whole meadow will be covered with these…

Bee orchid

… or even with these, which would be a treat. They’re already rivaling the heath spotteds in number.

This collection leaves only one local rarity to appear in future years. The green-winged orchid lives on the boggy grassland known here as turbary land. Our plot forms the southern end of the turbary enclosed by Act of Parliament around 1830, but it was always walled off as pasture, presumably because it was a bit dryer. So it remains to be seen if the orchid can thrive here. If it does, I’ll take a photo.

In closing, I just have to give a hat-tip to a sometime commenter here, Lou Jost, who used to preach atheism in a companionable sort of way. He was a real orchid hunter in the Amazon, and as far as I know discovered the smallest species in the world there some years ago. For all I can tell it could be growing on my field, but being transparent and 2mm across it would escape notice anyway.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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