On the Black Hill

This is what orchid hunting is all about.

Today was a perfect day in the Olchon valley. It’s in Herefordshire but a stone’s throw from the Offas Dyke path and the Welsh border. It’s the only site in Herefordshire for Lesser twayblade (Neottia cordata) and right at the southerly tip of it’s range except for a few on Exmoor.

Lesser twayblade

The sun was shining as we climbed up towards the Black Hill (Bruce Chatwin’s dark and disturbing book was set here).

We had a 6 figure map reference for the spot, which is not great because it defines quite a large area and we foolishly decided to approach via a very steep slope, searching as we climbed in amongst the heather, bilberry and sphagnum moss. We were distracted by tiny bedstraws and delicate ferns clinging under the rocks.

Why this spot?

Arriving at the top, we quickly realised that the flat area above was a much more likely site and after a bit more searching we found one, then another, and another. They were in a very limited area, only about 20 square metres, which is odd when the heather, bilberry, moss mix looks the same as far as you can see.

Lesser twayblade

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The first Lesser twayblade I saw was only 3cm high and poking out of the middle of a mound of sphagnum moss. Lifting the branches of the heather I started to find more, taller ones, larger ones in flower, up to 15cm and lots of tiny unflowering plants 2cm across. The individual flowers are about 2-3mm diameter and have a figure with pink arms and legs spread-eagled across the front, with a rounded swollen ovary behind the flower.

Photographing a plant involves lying on the ground in between the heather clumps, checking first that I am not squashing any more orchids. On most days on the Black Hill this would mean lying in a bog and getting soaked, but the sun was shining and the ground was dry enough.

It’s astonishing to me that sites like this are still threatened by people digging up plants and stealing them. Apart from the obvious criminality and selfishness, these plants are so particular about their environment that they are not going to survive disturbance, nobody could recreate this in a pot or in a garden. And the joy and excitement of seeing the Lesser twayblades today is also in the environment, the fantastic views, the larks calling above, the hunt and the satisfaction of eventually finding them.

A small orchid garden

I’m like a child in a sweet shop

Early spider orchid

Not far from where I live, there is a cottage garden with a stunning view of the river Wye and an extraordinary collection of native orchids. The house was previously owned by an enthusiast, who populated his garden with gems normally only seen on reserves and involving long motorway journeys. I am lucky enough to have an introduction to the current owner, who has generously offered access and seed from anything I desire.

Monkey orchid

There are dozens of Early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) which is normally only seen on the South coast. There is Man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) and Monkey orchid (Orchis simia), mostly found on reserves in the South East and rarely, possibly never found together, which makes the Man x Monkey hybrid extremely rare. Yes, I took along a cocktail stick and did some cross pollination using the Man as the pollen plant. I am hoping to get some seed of the extravagantly coloured Orchis x bergonii.

Lizard orchid starting to open a bud

There are also Late spider orchids, Twayblade, Bee and Pyramidal, Southern marsh, Common spotted. There’s a White helleborine which had its top chewed off by a passing deer before anyone could protect it. A couple of Lizard orchids were just starting to unfurl their lizard tails. Somewhere here there are supposed to be Tongue orchids and Autumn lady’s tresses and a couple of European Bertolini’s bee orchids. I’m like a small child in a sweet shop. I hardly know which one to look at next or how to do so without treading on something else rare and precious. I will be back for more pictures and seed.

Perhaps there will be seed of the Man x Monkey, then I’ll have to work out how to grow it.

Man orchid

Accidentally finding a rarity

Creeping lady’s tresses

The only holiday we booked this year was a week at a Centre Parcs, no orchid hunting trips, none of my usual long drives tracking down some tiny rare plant that I’ve never seen before. Well, we went to Centre Parcs in Cumbria, mainly because we were going with a family member who uses a wheelchair and they are so good at making everything accessible. Also it was at the end of August so when The Husband said ‘Aren’t there any orchids on this trip?’ I said ‘Oh no there won’t be anything at this time of year, they’re pretty much done apart from the Lady’s tresses and the Helleborines’.

So then I looked it up.

Well I was very excited to find that Cumbria Centre Parcs is one of a very few English sites for Creeping lady’s tresses (Goodyera repens) , which I had never seen before. Most of them are in Scotland, there’s a few in Norfolk. And I discovered that they are to be found in an area of a few square metres just off the main path between our lodge and the swimming pool.

It was a little late in the year for them, as you can see from my not very good pictures, they were turning brown at the tips. Also, in my defence, I hadn’t taken my good camera on holiday and only had my phone.

Creeping lady’s tresses

They like a dark forest floor of pine needles and may be found amongst heather and bilberry, or in a mossy patch. Also it is not the Lady but the plant that creeps, forming a clump and spreading via runners. It is the only British orchid which is evergreen having no dormant period when it dies back and retreats underground.

Naturally the rest of my party were not convinced that we had accidentally gone on holiday within 100m of a rare orchid species, during its flowering time. I could tell you that it was my son who chose the location and the timing was determined by other factors, but nobody will believe me.

A walk on Common Hill

Like many people, I didn’t get out much this year and when I did get a walk it wasn’t far from home. Common Hill is just a few miles from my home and lies on a limestone outcrop in south Herefordshire. It is a local wildlife hot spot with a mosaic of ancient woodland, hay meadow gems and a maze of tracks, lanes and cottages.

A footpath runs the length of the hill and this is my favourite walk in all of Herefordshire. The path includes 4 reserves, meadow and woodland. There is Butchers broom, Stinking iris and Spurge laurel. There is Early purple orchid, Greater butterfly orchid and Martagon lily. There is Native columbine, Stinking hellebore and Herb paris. There is Adders tongue fern, Common spotted orchid and Pyramidal orchid. There are ancient Yews, Small leaved lime and Wild service tree. A botanists’ paradise and I’m so lucky to have this on my doorstep.

Orchid hunting in Lockdown

Early purple orchid

There are some lovely Wildlife Trust reserves just a couple of miles from where I live on the Woolhope Dome in Herefordshire. Lea and Pagets wood is a place I often visit on my birthday because that is peak bluebell time. This wonderful ancient wood has also always had a fair scattering of Early purple orchids (Orchis maculata) a dozen here and a dozen there. But this year my visit was full of surprises.

Deep in the wood is a new coppice coupe. The wood is well managed by the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust and as a Thursday volunteer I have coppiced here myself on many occasions. Coppicing is the practice of cutting a tree just above ground level and allowing the regrowth to sprout all around the cut stump. If the new growth is protected from browsing by deer, the tree will be renewed and form a coppice stool where several thin trunks emerge from the base rather than one thick trunk. This was done in the past to create useful wood products for fences and tools. Nowadays it is more likely to be done as part of woodland management, providing habitat for species such as dormouse and fritillary butterflies.

Where the trees were cut last winter there is now a mass of wild flowers

The new coppice in Lea and Pagets wood is awash with Early purple orchids, there are hundreds of them. In places there are more orchids than bluebells. I also found a single Greater butterfly orchid, which is in a couple of other spots locally, but I’ve never seen any in the wood before.

So my bluebell walk turned out to be a real birthday treat.

Orchid hunting in Lockdown

Green winged orchid in my garden

Expeditions are quite limited this year for obvious reasons and my orchid hunting is confined to my garden and within a couple of miles of home. Now, I am quite fortunate there. As an orchid grower there are quite a few things popping up in my garden as well as the ones I have put in pots and containers or planted myself. These Green winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) sprang up by themselves in a patch of lawn. I expect I wafted around some chaff and seed scraps a few years ago and these seeds found a tightly mown area of poor grass which is so close to a retaining wall that it is slightly more alkaline that the general lawn and other plant growth is restricted. We innocently created a perfect micro-habitat. We now have 4 in flower and a fifth which is just in leaf this year.

Four green winged orchids in an alkaline patch of lawn

We also have a lot of Common spotted popping up all over the garden. There are a couple of ‘meadow’ patches where they have been sowed and encouraged, these are now showing dozens of new plants, but they are also appearing of their own accord in paths and pots. If they appear in a mown grass path I will transplant them, because they are in the way, anywhere else they can just stay and do their own thing. The garden is well supplied with wild flowers and there are several wild areas which have very little gardening going on, lots of nettles in other words but lockdown offers a lot more time for weeding (I hate weeding) and the beds are looking good.

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