Musk and frog orchids on Noar Hill

Frog orchid

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.

Fragrant and Pyramidal

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) .

Musk orchid

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.

The frog

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.

Clustered bellflower

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.

Musk orchids are hard to find

Lizards in the sand dunes

Lizard orchid

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.

Lizard orchid

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.

Pyramidal orchid

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.

Lesser butterflies in the rain

Lesser butterfly orchid

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.

Lesser butterfly orchid

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.

Greater butterfly orchid

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.