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



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