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

Serendipity and the Man of Kent

Man orchid

I made a trip to Kent to see the Man orchids Orchis anthrophora  at Queensdown Warren. As we walked into the reserve The Husband (a man of Kent) said ‘I know this place, this is The Warren’ . It’s a place he knew as a child (50+ years ago) just a short bike ride from his grandfather’s farm. It wasn’t a reserve then of course, just a bit of farmland and woodland like any other. Later on in the pub he searched google maps for the farm (he didn’t know the name, it was just ‘The Farm’) and found it. Next morning we visited, met the new owner and had a tour of the old barns and new buildings. TH  told of the winter of ’62/’63 when they were snowed in for 10 days and built an igloo, of collecting eggs in the barn and of finding abandoned army kit in the woods where soldiers were hidden during WWII. All very interesting and serendipitous but nothing to do with orchids.

Man orchid

On arriving at The Warren TH found the first Man of Kent and I discovered a group of several White helleborines in the wooded areas. Moving on to the next section of the reserve, we found many more Man orchids mostly along the upper boundary of the field, though it has a reputation for preferring the bottom of a slope. Some of the little hooded lime green figures are actively striding into the air, others hanging limply and justifying the french name L’Homme pendu – the hanged man. It is a chalkland species, it is nationally scarce and most of the UK records are in the Surrey and Kent downland.  It will hybridise with Lady, Monkey and Military so presumably they can share pollinating insects but some spread is also by production of an extra tuber. I have been hand-pollinating some Man orchids in Suffolk this year – more on that another time.

White helleborine

The White helleborine Cephalanthera damasonium still has a single site in Herefordshire, but I haven’t seen it close to home, it is concentrated in Southern England especially the chalk of Kent, Surrey, the Chilterns and the Cotswolds. It is often found on the sloping ,leafy woodland floor of a beech wood. The flowers are a pure ivory and egg-shaped, they do not open very far and keep this rounded shape, looking as if they are still in bud. They are often self-pollinated and may do this before the flower is fully open (cleistogamy).

White helleborine

Like the Coralroot orchid, it has an association with the nearby trees via a mycorrhizal fungus and it steals nutrient from the trees, this enables it to live on the shady woodland floor where few other plants can survive the low light conditions.

Chalk fragrant

Moving on through Queenswood warren we found a fenced area containing a host of Chalk fragrant orchids Gymnadenia conopsea, just starting to open their lowest buds. After much searching I found just one or two plants outside the fence and they willingly posed for photographs, as did one of the many Adonis Blue butterflies.

Adonis blue

Near the bottom of the field we found a large area with dozens of Bee orchids Ophrys apifera, the most photogenic orchid in my opinion and always delightful to find.

Bee orchid