Orchids at Clattinger Farm

Burnt orchid

It’s a big claim to be the UK’s finest lowland meadow and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s huge for a start, 126 Ha in total including the ponds and a large part of that area is a series of very good meadows each one slightly different from it’s neighbour.

The star of the show is the Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata). Burgundy buds unfold to show a white lip shaped like a clown suit with burgundy polka dots, it’s stunning. Some populations are found on dry chalk downland, but these are in a wet meadow alongside Great burnet and Saw-wort. It has a reputation for growing only on the longest established grasslands.

Burnt orchid

There are other plant superstars at Clattinger. The spring offers fields of Snakeshead fritillary and Green winged orchids. We saw the Green winged, now in bud.

On my visit, on a very hot day in June, there was an abundance of Common spotted orchids and Southern marsh, including an unusual colour variant. The Early marsh had nearly finished and only a few faded flowers were left. There was Pyramidal and Heath spotted. Above the grasses bobbed the heads of Great burnet and there was Salad burnet and the clotted cream yellow of Pepper saxifrage. Hundreds of thousands of bright turquoise damsel flies were using the hedgerows as a corridor to the pools. In a mad dash to mate, many of them were locked together in pairs as they flew towards the water. Well worth a visit at any time of year.

Common spotted orchid
Pyramidal orchid
Heath spotted orchid
Early marsh orchid at the end of flowering

Jersey Orchids

Loose-flowered orchid

In Britain you can only find the Loose-flowered orchid (Anacamptis laxiflora) in Jersey and Guernsey and once you’re there they are not hard to find. There is the wetlands centre on the west coast Le Noir Pre, known as The Orchid Fields, where there are several wet meadows and an estimate of 50,000 plants. There is another Jersey National Trust field across the island with another few thousand plants. The intense purple and the sheer numbers are impressive. One of these fields was used as a dump until 1960, which is possibly what saved it from being drained and ploughed up to grow Jersey Royal potatoes, like so many other fields. The Loose-flowered orchid was a common sight on the Channel Islands 100 years ago, found in all the wet places growing so densely it was impossible not to trample them. Now thanks to development, drainage and agriculture they are confined to these two sites.

Loose flowered orchid

The flower is similar to the Early purple, but the leaf is unspotted and the stem is elongated with flowers well spread out – that’s what’s meant by ‘loose flowered’. They are mostly around 25cm but can grow up to 50cm making a very imposing plant.

They are much more common further south and around the Mediterranean, but maybe climate change will persuade them further north and onto the UK mainland.

Loose flowered orchid pink form

There were a few very pretty pale pink variants and some Southern marsh orchid, Heath spotted orchid and Common spotted orchids scattered in smaller numbers. The BSBI records show Lizard orchid nearby, but we didn’t find those.

The wetlands centre includes a large pond, reedbeds, the wet meadows and some areas of dune. It is a well known place to see Marsh harriers, which were there constantly soaring above our heads and diving into the reeds. The nearby Blanches banques SSSI has many rare plant species including the Lizard orchid and a good population of Nottingham catchfly as well as some interesting standing stones.

Heath spotted, Loose-flowered and Southern marsh

Nursery Notes

Green Winged orchids fresh from the jar

Orchid propagation in the nursery has been busy over the winter. I am just planting out a batch of Green winged orchids which have grown really fast. They were sowed last summer as soon as the fresh seed was ready and here they are with a sinker, a tuber and some tiny water roots near the soil surface. I potted up about 60 today and there are many more still in the lab, putting on a bit more growth before they’re ready. I’m hoping these will be ready for sale this autumn. They go into a large window box because they do well all together and there is less chance of drying out or big temperature fluctuations.

Green winged in a big nursery container

Winter dormant orchids are emerging and I was pleased to see some Marsh helleborines coming up. They were planted out last autumn and it’s my first successful batch of helleborines, so I wasn’t sure how they would get on. I’m thrilled to see they are all coming up and have survived the winter well. They are still small, so I’m hoping these can go on sale in the autumn after another season’s growth.

Young Marsh helleborine

One of my tasks last autumn was to clear and sow a new meadow patch about 3m x 3m , to use as a propagation bed. It’s next to the plant stands, mostly weed free and I sowed a calcareous meadow mix in September. I also added huge quantities of orchid seed – anything in the fridge I didn’t need anymore. I have used this area to plant out any tiny plants that got contaminated in the lab, so rather than throw them away I gave them a second chance by putting them out in the nursery bed. I know it doesn’t look much now, but I’m hoping that in a few years time it will be chock full of interesting species and I can use the space to plant out some more sensitive species that really don’t like being in a pot for any length of time. So far I can see a few grasses and meadow buttercups, a lot of yellow rattle and a clump of corn cockle which I sowed in one corner, just for fun.

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

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