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.

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