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.
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.
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.
So if you want self-seeding orchids all over your garden, you need very poor soil, rubble, grit, builders waste and very low fertility.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Some of our UK native orchids are really easy to grow in the garden and September is a great time to plant them.
Common spotted orchid will grow in all parts of the UK and wants a sunny spot in a flower bed, alpine bed or a patch of grass under hay meadow management. They are happy with most neutral garden soils from light and sandy to heavy clay. They come up year after year and if they don’t have too much competition, they will double up each year forming a nice clump. If you let them set seed they may grow from seed as the soil fungus that they need to germinate is pretty common in garden soils.
If you live in one of the wetter parts of the country, or you have a damp patch of garden you could also grow one of the marsh orchids. Southern marsh orchid in the South, the Midlands and Wales, and Northern marsh orchid in the North of England and Scotland. They are a deeper purple than the Common spotted orchid and make beautiful garden plants. They are also perennial, will grow to form a clump and may grow from seed in your soil.
All these plants are also great in pots and tubs. Give them a roomy pot with a very well drained mix containing a lot of grit and perlite and water regularly through the spring and summer. For the marsh orchids you can stand the pots in a shallow tray of water, so that they never quite dry out. They make a fantastic display for a terrace or an outdoor table centre.
Take a look at the ‘our orchids’ page to see the plants we have available.
This is the time of year to collect and store orchid seed and if the plants are not ours, we always get permission from the landowner to collect seed. The seed must be fully ripe, which means that the seed pods have swollen, matured and started to turn from green to brown, but if you leave it too long the pod will split and the seeds will be gone. The Dactylorhiza seed is fully mature and ready to finish the drying process. These Greater butterfly orchid pods are still green, so the seed inside is still forming and maturing.
Keep the pods in a paper envelope at room temperature until they are thoroughly dry. Split the pod open on a clean sheet of paper, greaseproof paper or foil. Orchid seed is very tiny and will cling to anything damp or plastic, or to the glue on an envelope.
Sieve out any debris using a tea strainer. Fold the paper and pour the seed into a small glass pot or jar. A greaseproof paper envelope is also suitable, but seed does tend to get stuck in the folds.
The seed then needs to be dried again. In a laboratory this is done in a dessicator and the resulting relative humidity can be accurately set, the aim is 12-14%. At home it is done with dried rice. Dry a tray of rice in the oven at 105 degC for 3 hours, allow it to cool. Use a kilner jar or similar with a tight fitting lid and half fill the jar with the rice. Push the bottle of seed into the rice to stand upright, leaving the lid loose or off, so that water can gradually move out of the seed. Seal the Kilner jar and leave for 3-4 days and then tighten the lids and store in an airtight jar, in the fridge.
Seed saved this way will remain viable for many years. This method is suitable for any seed that you want to store e.g. flowers, or veg seed from your garden and they will keep much longer than if you leave them in an opened packet in your shed. You can then use them yourself next year or share them at your local seed swap.
Noar Hill in Hampshire is an amazing wildflower site. It is the site of a medieval chalk workings and is 20 hectares of mixed woodland and grassland on hillocks and hollows. As I entered the site the first orchid to be seen was the Common spotted (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), as it often is, tolerating the part shade and long grass under the trees. I moved on and the next was Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis), there are masses of these all over the grassy mounds along with a lot more Common spotted and Common twayblade (Neottia ovata). These 3 orchids were everywhere I looked and there must be many thousands on the site.
The next one I saw was the Fragrant orchid, sometimes called Chalk fragrant (Gymnadenia conopsea). It is found on calcareous soils but not always chalk and the scent is like vanilla and cloves. when it’s strong and on a still day you can detect it from standing, but usually I have to get down to their level to catch the fragrance.
There were still two small, green elusive orchids that I was hoping to find. I started to follow little trodden paths, which seemed to go nowhere, thinking that someone went there before me and maybe they found something interesting. This method often works and soon I found my first group of Musk orchids ( Herminium monorchis) .
They are pale yellowish green, only about 10cm tall and are fairly hard to spot amongst the grass. They only grow in the shortest grass and on this site they grow in their 1000s. They spread by seed but also by rhizome, so they form clumps and colonies quite readily and where you find one, you will find several.
I sat down on a chalky bank to photograph another group of the Musk orchids and when I got down low with my camera I suddenly spotted my first Frog orchid (Dactylorhiza viridis). There were two of them, even shorter than the Musk, but chunkier with the characteristic dark reddish hood to the flowers. they are members of the marsh orchid genus but look nothing like them. It does sometimes hybridise with Common spotted and other ‘Dacts’ showing that they are indeed close cousins.
Seeing the frog in the flower shape is a bit of a stretch of imagination, but maybe the lip could be the back legs stretched out while hopping.
I only found two frog orchids, but as I wandered further I saw many more Musk orchids, seed pods of the Early purple, a Bee orchid with the top broken off and my bonus plant for the day was a few Clustered bellflowers, which I have never seen before.
I haven’t even mentioned the butterflies. Noar Hill is famously a site for the rare Duke of Burgundy (which I didn’t see, I think it’s the wrong time of year) but I did see a lot of butterflies including skippers and marbled whites. But for me it was an 8-orchid day, and that is a good day.
The lizard orchid is my new favourite plant. It is monstrous and stinking. I made the journey down to Sandwich Bay, Kent, where there are 1000s to be found on the dunes, the roadside, front lawns of bungalows and the golf course. This population was closely guarded in the 70’s and 80’s but the species is thriving here and starting to appear in other parts of the South of England. It’s our biggest native orchid, standing between 30cm and 90cm tall, covered in wild grey-green mass of lizard tails, which are the elongated lip petals. The lip twists and curls and shrivels quite fast in the hot sun, making the plant look half dead, though the rest of the flower is prime condition. The front end of the lizard has dived inside the flower and a pair of back legs dangle down from it.
It smells of goat, it is a foul smelling plant. In Kent it is known as the Goat orchid or Great Goat-stones, describing the underground tubers.
There were many Pyramidal orchids on the roadside. On cliffs and dunes it is always the orchid closest to the sea, in the last band of tough plants before the cliff edge or the beach shingle. It is one of our most photogenic orchids, always a clear, bright pink with no markings except a paler pink or white centre to each flower. In this picture it is beautifully arranged with Restharrow and Sea holly.
It is very widespread, often occurs in large numbers and is equally at home inland and a welcome sight on roadside verges. There are lots in flower now beside the A419 near Gloucester, where the traffic always slows and I can get a good look at them.
Strawberry Bank is a Gloucester Wildlife Trust reserve near Stroud. It was a warm sunny afternoon and the forecast was good so I went in my sandals and didn’t take a coat. The rain started just as I left the car, but I made my way down a footpath, through long wet grass and mud, got a bit lost, washed my feet in a stream, went along the lane, up through a patch of woodland and found the right spot. There was a group of butterfly spotters looking for Marsh fritillary, which was nowhere to be seen in the drizzle. At least orchids don’t fly off when it rains. They recommended a visit to nearby Selsey Common, so I went on there afterwards (pictures to follow in another post) and the rain got heavier.
The lesser butterfly orchids (Platanthera bifolia) are beautiful stately and elegant. White and green flowers which look individually like a miniature cartoon ghost. The easy way to tell them from the Greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) is by looking at the pollinia, the eyes of the ghost. In the ‘greater’ they are angled and in the ‘lesser’ they are parallel. The ‘lesser’ are supposed to be smaller and more dainty, but are not necessarily.
Dr Richard Bateman from Kew has spent years measuring recording and DNA sequencing the butterfly orchids. He states that there is not sufficient genetic difference to regard them as two distinct species. He said that there is more genetic variation between two unrelated humans than there is between these two orchid species.
But there are distinct populations of each and some hybridisation where they occur together. P bifolia has the heathland form, growing in acid soils, and woodland form often in calcareous beechwoods. P chlorantha can also be seen in grassland or woodland, but nearly always on calcareous soil.
Lesser butterfly is classified as a vulnerable species with 64% of historical sites lost and as ever that is due to changing farming practices, loss of heath, deciduous woodland and loss of wildflower meadows.
It rained all afternoon, I kept my camera dry under my t-shirt and I was soaked through by the time I got back to the car, perhaps it’s a necessary rite of initiation for a new orchid hunter.
Painswick Beacon is a beautiful hillfort just south of Gloucester, so just a short trip from home. It is a mass of steep sided mounds and earthworks in dry crumbly calcareous soil, so perfect for orchid hunting. I went there yesterday in search of the Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and hoping to see a few other things of interest as well. Now I know that I should have asked someone in the know for some direction on where to find the Fly orchids, they are 10cm tall and mostly green and it is a big site. But I didn’t, I enjoy the search and the thrill of discovery, except when it doesn’t work and I don’t find anything, and then I curse my arrogance and foolishness. Well, I walked around for some time, found some rather old Early purples, lots of Twayblades, a few Common spotted orchids in bud and then found an old quarry site. I thought the Fly might like to live on a very dry slope like that so I climbed up the scree and then up the scrubby grass above the scree and there it was, a single perfect Fly orchid.
I was perched on a very steep slope so took some pictures and climbed up to safety. I searched the rest of the slope and all the surrounding area but didn’t find another one. If anyone knows, please tell me, how many are there and where are the rest of them to be found?
The Fly orchid attracts a pollinator by mimicry in look, feel and smell, though it is not a fly, it is the male digger wasp that attempts to copulate with the flower and in moving from one flower to another will pollinate them.
At the bottom of the scree I found a large clump of helleborines, too early to identify, but probably Broad leaved helleborine. I shall return later in the year to look at these