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
We have several Dactylorhiza species starting to come into flower at the nursery and I would like to be able to save seed from the Southern marsh (D praetermissa) and Northern marsh (D purpurella). But the marsh orchids are promiscuous and if I leave them to their own devices they will cross with each other and the Common spotted and the Heath spotted, which will all be flowering at the same time. So I have made a couple of isolation tents using shade netting (they all appreciate a little shade anyway on a hot day) and I will be hand pollinating the plants in the tents.
It’s a delicate task using a cocktail stick. Orchid pollen is not the usual powdery yellow stuff that most plants produce. The orchid flower needs to make thousands of seeds per seed pod and each seed comes from a different pollen grain meeting one of the thousands of ovules produced by the recipient flower. So the pollen comes as a clump of pollen grains on a stick ready to be transferred to another flower all in one shot. These are called pollinia and they are concealed in a pocket behind the anther cap.
If you give the pollinia a little poke, they will jump out and stick themselves to your cocktail stick like little antlers, about 1mm long. They do this when a bee or other pollinator sticks their head in the flower. The bees comes out with mini antlers and a ball of yellow or green pollen on the end and then the bee transfers it to the stigma on the next flower. This is what you mimic with your cocktail stick. Next time you’re in a wildflower meadow with orchids in flower, look closely at the bees, you will sometimes see yellow blobs stuck to their heads.
I have started doing this with the Northern marsh orchids, which have a few flowers open, and I will go back and do some more as more flowers open up. I will do the same with the Southern marsh orchids in the next door tent, always using a clean cocktail stick.
As long as I can keep the pollinators out, I can be sure that my seed will be true to the species and not hybridised. Many orchid growers deliberately hybridise their plants to produce new variations and to produce bigger, brighter plants with hybrid vigour, but for now I am going to try to keep to native species rather than hybrids.
On a spectacular hillside, overlooking the Thames, silvery in the sunshine, is an extraordinary collection of orchids. Hartslock nature reserve is one of only 3 sites for the monkey orchid Orchis simia. Standing only 15cm tall with a pale pink flower head which is a tangle of monkey arms and legs.
They are thriving at Hartslock, their numbers going from 7 to 400+ and now starting to appear in the lower field as well as the slope above.
On the same slope is a single Lady orchid Orchis purpurea, surviving but alone. She is taller than the monkeys and the individual flowers have a brownish ‘bonnet’ with a lip which divides into arms and a big frilly white skirt. She was just starting to go over when I visited, so the lower flowers are looking shrivelled, but the upper ones were still fresh. I am told that the DNA of this lady tells us that she is more closely related to the french populations that the other UK plants, so maybe she arrived here by human intervention.
In the UK most Lady orchid sites are in Kent and some sites have over 1000 flowering plants, but this lady has no other plants to cross with and does not appear to self-pollinate. But she does hybridise with the monkeys and the sight that hits you as you emerge onto the hillside is the lady x monkey hybrids.
The hybrids are huge and they surround her, dwarfing her. They are big and bright and purple with a purple bonnet and monkey legs. They first appeared here in 2006 and are confidently marching across the hillside as their numbers multiply.
When you continue on the path into the woods there is another surprise. White helleborines Cephalanthera damasonium are popping up through the leaf litter. It is a dark section of woodland with virtually no ground flora except for the fresh green spikes of the helleborines. You have to avoid treading on them, they are coming up in the path, through the hard trodden earth of the steps. You have to wonder at something so delicate pushing up through that hard compacted earth. They have been shown to have a mycorrhizal link to nearby trees, perhaps the nutrients they take from the trees allow them to live in the dark under such a thick canopy, where few other plants can survive.
Hartslock has much more to offer, later in the year there will be Bee orchid, Pyramidal and Common spotted and for my visit there was also a bonus plant, Pasque flower Pulsatilla vulgaris which is one of my favourite wild flowers and was introduced here some years ago and is thriving on the steep slope.
Joan’s Hill farm is a Plantlife reserve near me in Herefordshire. There are several fields of fantastic quality wildflower meadow and an ancient orchard. One field in particular has a host of Green winged orchid, several years ago a group of us counted 4-500 but there are many more since then and they are starting to appear in a couple of the neighbouring meadows in quite large groups.
A week ago only a couple of orchids were in flower and the meadow was yellow with cowslips. Now the yellow is dotted all over with bright purple. There are also quite a number of pale pinks and whites to be seen and on these the green veining on the sepals is much clearer.
They are wintergreen and have a short dormant period in late summer. The new season’s leaves appear in the autumn, so they can be vulnerable to overgrazing in winter when a hay meadow is normally grazed. Careful stock management is required to maintain a large healthy population.
It is pollinated by bees but doesn’t produce nectar, though it may offer them some sweet sugary sap instead (like the Early purple and Pyramidal orchids) which is some compensation for the deception. The Green winged orchid used to be common and widespread but changes in agriculture have reduced site numbers by 50% in the last 50 years and sites are still being lost.
I’m so excited by this one, the Early spider orchid Ophrys sphegodes. I’ve never seen these before so I decided to make the effort. I drove 3 hours down to the Dorset coast, Durleston Country Park on the edge of Poole harbour. This is one of a very few UK sites for this orchid. It only grows on the south coast, in Kent and Sussex as well as Dorset, and there is a very large population at Samphire Hoe on a reserve made from a huge spoil heap created by the excavation of the channel tunnel.
It is closely related to the bee orchid and they share a pollination technique. they look, feel and even smell like a female Andrena bee. When the male tries to mate with the flower, he collects the pollen and then transfers it as he tries it on again with the next flower. It is an amazing feat of mimicry.
They are the most charming little flowers, only about 10cm tall with their heads bobbing in the sea breeze. I’d say they are well worth a long drive.