Herefordshire Helleborines

Broad leaved helleborine

I have been hunting fruitlessly for helleborines in Herefordshire. I searched for Violet helleborine near Eastnor Castle – not there. I searched for it at Ashburton by the old moat – not there. I searched for it in the grounds of Croft Castle – I didn’t find it. There is an old record for Violet helleborine in the little wood close to my house, but I’ve never seen it there either.

Ledbury Naturalists had a day out on the Doward last weekend. The Doward is a large limestone outcrop in the south of Herefordshire and it is a botanical hotspot. There is a place in the wood below King Arthurs Cave, where you suddenly emerge onto a rock ledge with Bloody cranesbill and Small scabious at your feet and the curve of the Wye at Symonds Yat stretched out below. The steep wooded valley sides are one of the most untouched, natural and wild places left in England.

Yellow birds-nest

We found a host of Broad leaved helleborines (Epipactis helleborine), most of them gathered around the entrance to the Leeping Stocks Wildlife Trust reserve. We found several brown and dessicated spikes of Birdsnest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis). We also found several patches and spikes of Yellow birds-nest which is another chlorophyll-free saprophytic/parasitic plant but not in the orchid family. I didn’t realise until I looked it up, it’s a close relation of Bilberry.

There are also White helleborines (Cephalanthera damasonium)in these woods, finished flowering now of course and I didn’t get a chance to go and see them in May when they were at their best. But we found one remaining spike and it had a single plump seed pod to supply the next generation.

White helleborine

Translocation of Pyramidal orchids

Pyramidal orchids

I have been asked by Focus Ecology in Worcester to help them with an orchid translocation job on a brownfield site in Birmingham. Usually large turfs are lifted using a digger, taking up the orchids and a large amount of the surrounding soil and vegetation. These are then moved immediately to a different location on the same site – easy. This job was going to be different. The developers said that the whole site was going to be decontaminated and re-profiled and the whole job was going to take 3 to 5 years. So the orchids had to be removed from site, looked after for up to 5 years and then replaced. They would also be happy to put back orchids grown from seed of the original ones, and maybe different species as well.

Plants collected with a rootball

Bee orchids used to be on the site and could go back into the newly created habitat area when the building work is finished.
Graham Davison (Focus Ecology) and I found the site very overgrown, covered in long grass, scrub and bramble and it took us some time to locate about 23 mature pyramidal plants and we didn’t find any bee orchids, I think the site had scrubbed over too much for their liking. We planned to mark the plants and lift them after seed collection, but we decided that we needed to get them out or struggle again to find them after another 8 weeks of bramble growth. So we dug them out with a rootball of about 20cm diameter.

33 pots

Adult plants don’t need the soil mycchorrhiza for survival and they are likely to get waterlogged over the winter in pots of their own soil. Also the soil contains lots of weed seeds which would be a constant problem in a pot. So, back at the nursery I teased away the soil and weeds and potted them up in my lime mix of John Innes No 2, grit, perlite, lime, oystershell and topsoil. I will collect seed from these plants and use it to grow some extras to be returned to Birmingham. At the site, the developers are looking at the idea of a wildflower area where the soil will be very shallow and nutrient-poor. We have asked them to retain a couple of large bags of the topsoil from where the orchids were growing, this will contain the mycorrhiza for this species. If this is added to the new orchid area, the returning plants will be able to multiply naturally again.

Lizard monster!

Lizard orchid

I visited a small meadow in the South of Herefordshire, not far from home. The owner has promised me some seed later this year from his thriving group of Pyramidal orchids. There’s a meadow and orchard with lots of Dacts, a few Green winged and then he said ‘Oh would you like to come and see my Lizard orchid?’
It is a monster. I’ve seen them in the wild and they were tall, yes, maybe 70cm but rather spindly growing in very poor sandy soil. This one was over 1m tall, stocky and solid in it’s prime covered in shaggy smelly flowers. It smelt rather musty and unpleasant but not strongly of goat, as they sometimes do.

Lizard monster

I am assured that it is a genuine UK native Himantoglossum hircinum and why is it there? It is a garden escape from the garden nextdoor which years ago belonged to an enthusiast who was a founder member of the Hardy Orchid Society.
Herefordshire is full of surprises.

Hand pollination

Military orchid

An orchid enthusiast in Suffolk agreed to let me collect some seed this year from some of the rarer plants in his collection. I said that they might need to be hand-pollinated, so he invited me along to see them and do some pollination. The garden is packed with orchids; Bee, Pyramidal, Common spotted and Twayblade grow in profusion and are naturally occurring. These sparked an interest so he then bought some native orchids including Man, Military and Lesser butterfly.

Man orchid

These are the ones I would like to collect some seed from and I don’t want to rely on the local insects because I don’t want the Man crossing with Military or Great butterfly crossing with the Lesser.
The method involves teasing out the sticky pollen clumps (pollinia) with a cocktail stick. They look like a minute yellow or green lollypop and they jump out and stick themselves to the end of the cocktail stick, just as they would jump and stick to the head of a bee. You then transfer the pollinia to the column of another flower, preferably on another plant for genetic diversity.

Lesser butterfly orchid

It’s fiddly. You need to hold the flower in one hand, the cocktail stick in the other and a magnifying glass in….oh, not enough hands. Also you need to be able to sit on the ground without squashing any other orchids and move from plant to plant with a 1mm yellow lollypop balanced on the end of a cocktail stick. 30 years of yoga practice have not adequately prepared me for this.
The Military orchids have been a disappointment. Nine of the original 10 have failed to come up this year (probably dead) and the last one came into flower unusually early  in mid-April and the flower head looks a bit squashed and contorted. Last year it looked fine, so it’s not a genetic problem, most likely due to drought as east Anglia has had a very dry winter and spring. The pollinia were not well formed and left an oily grey blob on the stick, so I am not expecting it to set seed.

Man orchid

The Man orchid is much better, nice springy yellow pollinia and the lower ovaries which I pollinated in April, seem to be swelling nicely. The Lesser butterfies only had 4 flowers open when I visited, so I did what I could and I am hoping for some seed later in the summer.
After pollination the flower fades, sometimes it closes up and twists upwards and the ovary, set behind the petals, starts to swell. It takes a least 4 weeks for orchid seed to develop and some species take 8 to 10 weeks. Many people do not realise that this takes so long and they think that it’s ok to cut their meadow or verges once the flowers have faded. It’s not just orchids, all plants take time for their seed to mature and ripen.

The Military orchid was a bit contorted

The seed is mature when the pod starts to turn from green to brown and ideally I would collect it before the pod turns completely brown and splits open. Once split the seed may become contaminated with viruses which cannot be killed off later in the lab.
If I manage to get seed from these 3 rarities I will dry it by enclosing it in a container of oven-dried rice. Then I store it in small glass, airtight jars in the fridge until I am ready to use it. It keeps like this for many years. Then I can start to discover how to grow them in the lab. That’s another story.

Seed stored in the fridge

Serendipity and the Man of Kent

Man orchid

I made a trip to Kent to see the Man orchids Orchis anthrophora  at Queensdown Warren. As we walked into the reserve The Husband (a man of Kent) said ‘I know this place, this is The Warren’ . It’s a place he knew as a child (50+ years ago) just a short bike ride from his grandfather’s farm. It wasn’t a reserve then of course, just a bit of farmland and woodland like any other. Later on in the pub he searched google maps for the farm (he didn’t know the name, it was just ‘The Farm’) and found it. Next morning we visited, met the new owner and had a tour of the old barns and new buildings. TH  told of the winter of ’62/’63 when they were snowed in for 10 days and built an igloo, of collecting eggs in the barn and of finding abandoned army kit in the woods where soldiers were hidden during WWII. All very interesting and serendipitous but nothing to do with orchids.

Man orchid

On arriving at The Warren TH found the first Man of Kent and I discovered a group of several White helleborines in the wooded areas. Moving on to the next section of the reserve, we found many more Man orchids mostly along the upper boundary of the field, though it has a reputation for preferring the bottom of a slope. Some of the little hooded lime green figures are actively striding into the air, others hanging limply and justifying the french name L’Homme pendu – the hanged man. It is a chalkland species, it is nationally scarce and most of the UK records are in the Surrey and Kent downland.  It will hybridise with Lady, Monkey and Military so presumably they can share pollinating insects but some spread is also by production of an extra tuber. I have been hand-pollinating some Man orchids in Suffolk this year – more on that another time.

White helleborine

The White helleborine Cephalanthera damasonium still has a single site in Herefordshire, but I haven’t seen it close to home, it is concentrated in Southern England especially the chalk of Kent, Surrey, the Chilterns and the Cotswolds. It is often found on the sloping ,leafy woodland floor of a beech wood. The flowers are a pure ivory and egg-shaped, they do not open very far and keep this rounded shape, looking as if they are still in bud. They are often self-pollinated and may do this before the flower is fully open (cleistogamy).

White helleborine

Like the Coralroot orchid, it has an association with the nearby trees via a mycorrhizal fungus and it steals nutrient from the trees, this enables it to live on the shady woodland floor where few other plants can survive the low light conditions.

Chalk fragrant

Moving on through Queenswood warren we found a fenced area containing a host of Chalk fragrant orchids Gymnadenia conopsea, just starting to open their lowest buds. After much searching I found just one or two plants outside the fence and they willingly posed for photographs, as did one of the many Adonis Blue butterflies.

Adonis blue

Near the bottom of the field we found a large area with dozens of Bee orchids Ophrys apifera, the most photogenic orchid in my opinion and always delightful to find.

Bee orchid

The tiniest triffid in Cumbria

Coralroot orchid

The Cumbrian sun beat down on Sandscale Haws at Barrow-in-Furness. The sky was so clear that we could see the Isle of Man, Scafell, Scafell Pike, Pillar, Coniston Old Man outlined against the blue.
I had come to see the Coralroot orchid Corallorhiza trifida – now don’t go thinking this is a monster plant – the trifida refers to a three lobed lip (scarcely visible) on a plant which is small, green and hides under bushes of creeping willow. It is found only on a few select dune slacks in a vast reserve of near-identical dune slacks. It only grows in a spot which is not too wet and not too dry, not too bare and not too overgrown. Fortunately it was a guided walk with a very knowledgeable National Trust guide, so I didn’t have to search for it myself.

Sandscale Haws

The Coralroot needs to form a parasitic mycorrhizal relationship with a fungus which is also associated with the roots of the Creeping willow Salix repens. The willow is doing all the work here, the orchid has a tiny amount of chlorophyll in its pale yellowish green stem, but it has no leaves and it’s very much a one way relationship.
It is very choosy about where it lives and is classified as Nationally Scarce, but in spite of that it is found in 30-40 site in the north of the UK and also all over the northern hemisphere, North America, Scandinavia, northern Europe and a few spots in Asia. Climate change may make it retreat further north in time.

Coralroot orchid

It usually self-pollinates, so it is not dependant on any insect partners and it also spreads slowly from it underground coral-shaped rhizome. I find this hard to picture as coral comes in so many different forms and I wasn’t allowed to dig up a plant to find out! Harrap and Harrap say it is a ‘much branched mass of cream-coloured fleshy coral-like knobs’.

Sandscale Haws is also the site of another fussy rarity, with a Goldilocks complex; the Natterjack toad. They like a pool which is not too shallow and not too deep. Too shallow and it dries up too soon, too deep and it is full of predators. We found spawn and plenty of tadpoles so the next fussy generation is assured.

Green winged – propagation success and mowing mistakes

Green winged orchid

The Green winged orchid Anacamptis morio is having it’s moment now at the end of April. I visited Winks meadow in Suffolk this week and it was dotted across the field, splashes of deep purple (a few are pale pink or white) interspersed with the bright yellow cowslips. Where you find Green winged you often find them in large numbers and they look spectacular.
I have been growing them in the lab for a few years now, very successfully symbiotically and asymbiotically, but they are very popular so they tend to sell out before they flower.

Pale pink Green winged orchid

This week I have my first flowering A morio in a pot. It was too small to sell earlier in the year, so I’m surprised it has flowered. I will have some more for sale in the autumn, which is the best time for planting out.
When I was away at the weekend The Husband called me to say he had mowed over an orchid in the lawn, he spotted it just too late. It’s a place that has never had orchids before, so I was pleased to hear that they are spreading and assumed it was a Common spotted. When I got home and looked I found it was a Green winged and it wasn’t one orchid it was eight.

Green winged orchid pot

Yes he mowed them all, but two of them have a couple of flower buds remaining and the group is now marked to prevent further destruction. I am chuffed to bits that A morio has decided to grow there – I have thrown around lots of spare seed and orchid chaff for years and this is the first sign of anything apart from the Common spotted. Our soil is slightly calcareous but quite fertile, so not ideal, but we have a couple of areas of wildflower meadow which are improving year on year. The A morio has chosen to grow in a part of the lawn that is cut regularly and it is in a very poor, mossy area close to a retaining wall – it’s the worst bit of soil in the garden.

A mowed Green winged orchid

So if you want self-seeding orchids all over your garden, you need very poor soil, rubble, grit, builders waste and very low fertility.

A visit to Samphire Hoe

Early spider orchid

We had just driven off the ferry at Dover after visiting some friends in France and it was just the right time of year for Early spider orchids Ophrys sphegodes, so we followed the brown signs to Samphire Hoe. It is the strangest entrance to a reserve – a single lane concrete tunnel controlled by a traffic light. The board by visitor centre said to look in the back car park for Early Spiders, so I went anticlockwise and The Husband went clockwise round the back car park. I found the first ones at the far end, then a few more and through the gate along the gravel path at the back of the reserve, they were all the way along. They are about 10-15cm tall with 2-6 flowers on each. the flowers are green with a large hairy brown lip and an irridescent ‘H’ across the middle.

Samphire Hoe

The reserve consists of 30 hectares of reclaimed land made from the spoil from the channel tunnel. It was spread at the foot of the chalk cliffs, a seawall prevents it from washing away and the new land was profiled to provide gentle hills and a couple of freshwater pools. The soil is very chalky, low in nutrient and suitable for interesting flora. We were there on a cold blustery, April afternoon so no butterflies and very little in the way of bird life. The Early spider orchids arrived in the 1990’s. Numbers peaked in 2012 at 11,500 and there are now maybe 5000 plants there.

Early spider orchid

Many orchid species, including this one, are pioneer species and love the bare, rocky ground with virtually no soil and little competition. They were growing happily along the edge of the raised gravel track. As the Hoe matures there is less bare ground available and more competition, which explains why the orchid numbers are declining. The management is sensitive to this and grazing with cattle helps to keep some areas open, with disturbed soil and will ensure that the Early spider doesn’t disappear.
It is one of the insect mimic species and is fertilised by pseudocopulation, when the unsuspecting small male wasp (not a spider) tries to mate with the flower instead of the female wasp. The deception is achieved not just visually, but may use scent and pheromones to attract the pollinator. It is a rare plant in the UK, classified as a Red Data Book species, but where it occurs; Dover, Durleston in Dorset and a few other sites on the South coast, it often occurs in huge numbers and makes a satisfying early orchid hunting trip.

Early spider orchids

As we walked back via the back car park we started spotting more, they were everywhere including the middle circle of the parking area and all round the edge. We had both walked straight past the first 10 or 15 plants – it’s the first trip of 2019 and I need to get my eye in.

The new season’s orchids are emerging

Common spotted orchids

The warm spring weather has brought out the first few leaves on the Common spotted orchids. The Southern marsh and Northern marsh are not far behind. This is a great time for planting out in your garden beds, tubs or wildflower meadow and these plants will all flower later this year.

I have been potting up some plants from the lab. These are Green winged orchids and they have nice sized roots and are strong enough to go out into pots of well drained media mix for the first time.

Green winged orchid seedlings

Green winged orchids are winter-green so in the wild their leaf rosettes have been weathering the winter, ready for early spring flowering. The flowers will start to show in the next few weeks. These plants have spent the winter in jars in the lab and will be ready for sale in the Autumn.

The last orchid of the year

Autumn lady’s tresses

Autumn lady’s tresses is the final orchid to flower in the UK. It is fairly widespread, but still rarely seen unless you set out to find it. It is small, usually 10-12 cm tall, mostly green and it chooses rocky places with thin, poor, dry, often calcareous soil. Sometimes it lives exposed on a clifftop, the ones I found were in a long-abandoned quarry in the Forest of Dean.  It has become a surprise coloniser of domestic lawns, perhaps because it needs a close cropped grass sward and the lawnmowers of the nation have taken the place of grazing livestock in creating the perfect habitat.
It has a very beautiful, delicate single spiral of small white flowers, reminiscent of a long plait of hair, studded with blossoms.

Autumn lady’s tresses

It is also scented and has a sweet, slightly lemony fragrance.
Autumn lady’s tresses is one of the winter-green orchids. It puts up a flower spike in the Autumn, along with a rosette of leaves which last all winter. This perfect delicate plant will tough it out through the worst of the cold weather, often in very exposed places, storing up food in the root for the next season’s flowering.

Autumn lady’s tresses showing the swollen root

The leaves die back when the warm weather comes and throughout the summer months there is no sign above ground, until cold wet weather spurs it into action again.
For me this is one of the most attractive UK orchids, a dainty and perfectly formed living helix to finish the orchid season.