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

The tiniest triffid in Cumbria

Coralroot orchid

The Cumbrian sun beat down on Sandscale Haws at Barrow-in-Furness. The sky was so clear that we could see the Isle of Man, Scafell, Scafell Pike, Pillar, Coniston Old Man outlined against the blue.
I had come to see the Coralroot orchid Corallorhiza trifida – now don’t go thinking this is a monster plant – the trifida refers to a three lobed lip (scarcely visible) on a plant which is small, green and hides under bushes of creeping willow. It is found only on a few select dune slacks in a vast reserve of near-identical dune slacks. It only grows in a spot which is not too wet and not too dry, not too bare and not too overgrown. Fortunately it was a guided walk with a very knowledgeable National Trust guide, so I didn’t have to search for it myself.

Sandscale Haws

The Coralroot needs to form a parasitic mycorrhizal relationship with a fungus which is also associated with the roots of the Creeping willow Salix repens. The willow is doing all the work here, the orchid has a tiny amount of chlorophyll in its pale yellowish green stem, but it has no leaves and it’s very much a one way relationship.
It is very choosy about where it lives and is classified as Nationally Scarce, but in spite of that it is found in 30-40 site in the north of the UK and also all over the northern hemisphere, North America, Scandinavia, northern Europe and a few spots in Asia. Climate change may make it retreat further north in time.

Coralroot orchid

It usually self-pollinates, so it is not dependant on any insect partners and it also spreads slowly from it underground coral-shaped rhizome. I find this hard to picture as coral comes in so many different forms and I wasn’t allowed to dig up a plant to find out! Harrap and Harrap say it is a ‘much branched mass of cream-coloured fleshy coral-like knobs’.

Sandscale Haws is also the site of another fussy rarity, with a Goldilocks complex; the Natterjack toad. They like a pool which is not too shallow and not too deep. Too shallow and it dries up too soon, too deep and it is full of predators. We found spawn and plenty of tadpoles so the next fussy generation is assured.

Green winged – propagation success and mowing mistakes

Green winged orchid

The Green winged orchid Anacamptis morio is having it’s moment now at the end of April. I visited Winks meadow in Suffolk this week and it was dotted across the field, splashes of deep purple (a few are pale pink or white) interspersed with the bright yellow cowslips. Where you find Green winged you often find them in large numbers and they look spectacular.
I have been growing them in the lab for a few years now, very successfully symbiotically and asymbiotically, but they are very popular so they tend to sell out before they flower.

Pale pink Green winged orchid

This week I have my first flowering A morio in a pot. It was too small to sell earlier in the year, so I’m surprised it has flowered. I will have some more for sale in the autumn, which is the best time for planting out.
When I was away at the weekend The Husband called me to say he had mowed over an orchid in the lawn, he spotted it just too late. It’s a place that has never had orchids before, so I was pleased to hear that they are spreading and assumed it was a Common spotted. When I got home and looked I found it was a Green winged and it wasn’t one orchid it was eight.

Green winged orchid pot

Yes he mowed them all, but two of them have a couple of flower buds remaining and the group is now marked to prevent further destruction. I am chuffed to bits that A morio has decided to grow there – I have thrown around lots of spare seed and orchid chaff for years and this is the first sign of anything apart from the Common spotted. Our soil is slightly calcareous but quite fertile, so not ideal, but we have a couple of areas of wildflower meadow which are improving year on year. The A morio has chosen to grow in a part of the lawn that is cut regularly and it is in a very poor, mossy area close to a retaining wall – it’s the worst bit of soil in the garden.

A mowed Green winged orchid

So if you want self-seeding orchids all over your garden, you need very poor soil, rubble, grit, builders waste and very low fertility.

A visit to Samphire Hoe

Early spider orchid

We had just driven off the ferry at Dover after visiting some friends in France and it was just the right time of year for Early spider orchids Ophrys sphegodes, so we followed the brown signs to Samphire Hoe. It is the strangest entrance to a reserve – a single lane concrete tunnel controlled by a traffic light. The board by visitor centre said to look in the back car park for Early Spiders, so I went anticlockwise and The Husband went clockwise round the back car park. I found the first ones at the far end, then a few more and through the gate along the gravel path at the back of the reserve, they were all the way along. They are about 10-15cm tall with 2-6 flowers on each. the flowers are green with a large hairy brown lip and an irridescent ‘H’ across the middle.

Samphire Hoe

The reserve consists of 30 hectares of reclaimed land made from the spoil from the channel tunnel. It was spread at the foot of the chalk cliffs, a seawall prevents it from washing away and the new land was profiled to provide gentle hills and a couple of freshwater pools. The soil is very chalky, low in nutrient and suitable for interesting flora. We were there on a cold blustery, April afternoon so no butterflies and very little in the way of bird life. The Early spider orchids arrived in the 1990’s. Numbers peaked in 2012 at 11,500 and there are now maybe 5000 plants there.

Early spider orchid

Many orchid species, including this one, are pioneer species and love the bare, rocky ground with virtually no soil and little competition. They were growing happily along the edge of the raised gravel track. As the Hoe matures there is less bare ground available and more competition, which explains why the orchid numbers are declining. The management is sensitive to this and grazing with cattle helps to keep some areas open, with disturbed soil and will ensure that the Early spider doesn’t disappear.
It is one of the insect mimic species and is fertilised by pseudocopulation, when the unsuspecting small male wasp (not a spider) tries to mate with the flower instead of the female wasp. The deception is achieved not just visually, but may use scent and pheromones to attract the pollinator. It is a rare plant in the UK, classified as a Red Data Book species, but where it occurs; Dover, Durleston in Dorset and a few other sites on the South coast, it often occurs in huge numbers and makes a satisfying early orchid hunting trip.

Early spider orchids

As we walked back via the back car park we started spotting more, they were everywhere including the middle circle of the parking area and all round the edge. We had both walked straight past the first 10 or 15 plants – it’s the first trip of 2019 and I need to get my eye in.

The new season’s orchids are emerging

Common spotted orchids

The warm spring weather has brought out the first few leaves on the Common spotted orchids. The Southern marsh and Northern marsh are not far behind. This is a great time for planting out in your garden beds, tubs or wildflower meadow and these plants will all flower later this year.

I have been potting up some plants from the lab. These are Green winged orchids and they have nice sized roots and are strong enough to go out into pots of well drained media mix for the first time.

Green winged orchid seedlings

Green winged orchids are winter-green so in the wild their leaf rosettes have been weathering the winter, ready for early spring flowering. The flowers will start to show in the next few weeks. These plants have spent the winter in jars in the lab and will be ready for sale in the Autumn.

The last orchid of the year

Autumn lady’s tresses

Autumn lady’s tresses is the final orchid to flower in the UK. It is fairly widespread, but still rarely seen unless you set out to find it. It is small, usually 10-12 cm tall, mostly green and it chooses rocky places with thin, poor, dry, often calcareous soil. Sometimes it lives exposed on a clifftop, the ones I found were in a long-abandoned quarry in the Forest of Dean.  It has become a surprise coloniser of domestic lawns, perhaps because it needs a close cropped grass sward and the lawnmowers of the nation have taken the place of grazing livestock in creating the perfect habitat.
It has a very beautiful, delicate single spiral of small white flowers, reminiscent of a long plait of hair, studded with blossoms.

Autumn lady’s tresses

It is also scented and has a sweet, slightly lemony fragrance.
Autumn lady’s tresses is one of the winter-green orchids. It puts up a flower spike in the Autumn, along with a rosette of leaves which last all winter. This perfect delicate plant will tough it out through the worst of the cold weather, often in very exposed places, storing up food in the root for the next season’s flowering.

Autumn lady’s tresses showing the swollen root

The leaves die back when the warm weather comes and throughout the summer months there is no sign above ground, until cold wet weather spurs it into action again.
For me this is one of the most attractive UK orchids, a dainty and perfectly formed living helix to finish the orchid season.

Autumn is planting time

Common spotted orchid

Some of our UK native orchids are really easy to grow in the garden and September is a great time to plant them.
Common spotted orchid will grow in all parts of the UK and wants a sunny spot in a flower bed, alpine bed or a patch of grass under hay meadow management. They are happy with most neutral garden soils from light and sandy to heavy clay. They come up year after year and if they don’t have too much competition, they will double up each year forming a nice clump. If you let them set seed they may grow from seed as the soil fungus that they need to germinate is pretty common in garden soils.
If you live in one of the wetter parts of the country, or you have a damp patch of garden you could also grow one of the marsh orchids. Southern marsh orchid in the South, the Midlands and Wales, and Northern marsh orchid in the North of England and Scotland. They are a deeper purple than the Common spotted orchid and make beautiful garden plants. They are also perennial, will grow to form a clump and may grow from seed in your soil.

Southern marsh orchid

All these plants are also great in pots and tubs. Give them a roomy pot with a very well drained mix containing a lot of grit and perlite and water regularly through the spring and summer. For the marsh orchids you can stand the pots in a shallow tray of water, so that they never quite dry out. They make a fantastic display for a terrace or an outdoor table centre.
Take a look at the ‘our orchids’ page to see the plants we have available.


Orchids at our nursery


Saving and storing seed

Dried Dactylorhiza seed

This is the time of year to collect and store orchid seed and if the plants are not ours, we always get permission from the landowner to collect seed. The seed must be fully ripe, which means that the seed pods have swollen, matured and started to turn from green to brown, but if you leave it too long the pod will split and the seeds will be gone. The Dactylorhiza seed is fully mature and ready to finish the drying process. These Greater butterfly orchid pods are still green, so the seed inside is still forming and maturing.

Greater butterfly seed pods

Keep the pods in a paper envelope at room temperature until they are thoroughly dry. Split the pod open on a clean sheet of paper, greaseproof paper or foil. Orchid seed is very tiny and will cling to anything damp or plastic, or to the glue on an envelope.
Sieve out any debris using a tea strainer. Fold the paper and pour the seed into a small glass pot or jar. A greaseproof paper envelope is also suitable, but seed does tend to get stuck in the folds.
The seed then needs to be dried again. In a laboratory this is done in a dessicator and the resulting relative humidity can be accurately set, the aim is 12-14%. At home it is done with dried rice. Dry a tray of rice in the oven at 105 degC for 3 hours, allow it to cool. Use a kilner jar or similar with a tight fitting lid and half fill the jar with the rice. Push the bottle of seed into the rice to stand upright, leaving the lid loose or off, so that water can gradually move out of the seed. Seal the Kilner jar and leave for 3-4 days and then tighten the lids and store in an airtight jar, in the fridge.

Seed stored in the fridge

Seed saved this way will remain viable for many years. This method is suitable for any seed that you want to store e.g. flowers, or veg seed from your garden and they will keep much longer than if you leave them in an opened packet in your shed. You can then use them yourself next year or share them at your local seed swap.

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.