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.

Catching flies

Fly orchid

Painswick Beacon is a beautiful hillfort just south of Gloucester, so just a short trip from home. It is a mass of steep sided mounds and earthworks in dry crumbly calcareous soil, so perfect for orchid hunting. I went there yesterday in search of the Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and hoping to see a few other things of interest as well. Now I know that I should have asked someone in the know for some direction on where to find the Fly orchids, they are 10cm tall and mostly green and it is a big site. But I didn’t, I enjoy the search and the thrill of discovery, except when it doesn’t work and I don’t find anything, and then I curse my arrogance and foolishness. Well, I walked around for some time, found some rather old Early purples, lots of Twayblades, a few Common spotted orchids in bud and then found an old quarry site. I thought the Fly might like to live on a very dry slope like that so I climbed up the scree and then up the scrubby grass above the scree and there it was, a single perfect Fly orchid.

Fly orchid

I was perched on a very steep slope so took some pictures and climbed up to safety. I searched the rest of the slope and all the surrounding area but didn’t find another one. If anyone knows, please tell me, how many are there and where are the rest of them to be found?

The Fly orchid attracts a pollinator by mimicry in look, feel and smell, though it is not a fly, it is the male digger wasp that attempts to copulate with the flower and in moving from one flower to another will pollinate them.
At the bottom of the scree I found a large clump of helleborines, too early to identify, but probably Broad leaved helleborine. I shall return later in the year to look at these

Helleborine

Orchid sex and what to do with a cocktail stick

Southern marsh orchid

We have several Dactylorhiza species starting to come into flower at the nursery and I would like to be able to save seed from the Southern marsh (D praetermissa) and Northern marsh (D purpurella). But the marsh orchids are promiscuous and if I leave them to their own devices they will cross with each other and the Common spotted and the Heath spotted, which will all be flowering at the same time. So I have made a couple of isolation tents using shade netting (they all appreciate a little shade anyway on a hot day) and I will be hand pollinating the plants in the tents.

Isolation tents

It’s a delicate task using a cocktail stick. Orchid pollen is not the usual powdery yellow stuff that most plants produce. The orchid flower needs to make thousands of seeds per seed pod and each seed comes from a different pollen grain meeting one of the thousands of ovules produced by the recipient flower. So the pollen comes as a clump of pollen grains on a stick ready to be transferred to another flower all in one shot. These are called pollinia and they are concealed in a pocket behind the anther cap.

Hand pollination

If you give the pollinia a little poke, they will jump out and stick themselves to your cocktail stick like little antlers, about 1mm long. They do this when a bee or other pollinator sticks their head in the flower. The bees comes out with mini antlers and a ball of yellow or green pollen on the end and then the bee transfers it to the stigma on the next flower. This is what you mimic with your cocktail stick. Next time you’re in a wildflower meadow with orchids in flower, look closely at the bees, you will sometimes see yellow blobs stuck to their heads.
I have started doing this with the Northern marsh orchids, which have a few flowers open, and I will go back and do some more as more flowers open up. I will do the same with the Southern marsh orchids in the next door tent, always using a clean cocktail stick.

Orchid nursery

As long as I can keep the pollinators out, I can be sure that my seed will be true to the species and not hybridised. Many orchid growers deliberately hybridise their plants to produce new variations and to produce bigger, brighter plants with hybrid vigour, but for now I am going to try to keep to native species rather than hybrids.

The monkeys and the single lady

Monkey orchid
Monkey orchid

On a spectacular hillside, overlooking the Thames, silvery in the sunshine, is an extraordinary collection of orchids. Hartslock nature reserve is one of only 3 sites for the monkey orchid Orchis simia. Standing only 15cm tall with a pale pink flower head which is a tangle of monkey arms and legs.

Monkey orchid

They are thriving at Hartslock, their numbers going from 7 to 400+ and now starting to appear in the lower field as well as the slope above.
On the same slope is a single Lady orchid Orchis purpurea, surviving but alone. She is taller than the monkeys and the individual flowers have a brownish ‘bonnet’ with a lip which divides into arms and a big frilly white skirt. She was just starting to go over when I visited, so the lower flowers are looking shrivelled, but the upper ones were still fresh. I am told that the DNA of this lady tells us that she is more closely related to the french populations that the other UK plants, so maybe she arrived here by human intervention.

Lady orchid

In the UK most Lady orchid sites are in Kent and some sites have over 1000 flowering plants, but this lady has no other plants to cross with and does not appear to self-pollinate. But she does hybridise with the monkeys and the sight that hits you as you emerge onto the hillside is the lady x monkey hybrids.

Lady x Monkey hybrid

The hybrids are huge and they surround her, dwarfing her. They are big and bright and purple with a purple bonnet and monkey legs. They first appeared here in 2006 and are confidently marching across the hillside as their numbers multiply.

White helleborine
White helleborine

When you continue on the path into the woods there is another surprise. White helleborines Cephalanthera damasonium are popping up through the leaf litter. It is a dark section of woodland with virtually no ground flora except for the fresh green spikes of the helleborines. You have to avoid treading on them, they are coming up in the path, through the hard trodden earth of the steps. You have to wonder at something so delicate pushing up through that hard compacted earth. They have been shown to have a mycorrhizal link to nearby trees, perhaps the nutrients they take from the trees allow them to live in the dark under such a thick canopy, where few other plants can survive.
Hartslock has much more to offer, later in the year there will be Bee orchid, Pyramidal and Common spotted and for my visit there was also a bonus plant, Pasque flower Pulsatilla vulgaris which is one of my favourite wild flowers and was introduced here some years ago and is thriving on the steep slope.

Lady x Monkey hybrid
Pasque flower

Green winged orchids at Joan’s Hill

Green winged orchid

Joan’s Hill farm is a Plantlife reserve near me in Herefordshire. There are several fields of fantastic quality wildflower meadow and an ancient orchard. One field in particular has a host of Green winged orchid, several years ago a group of us counted 4-500 but there are many more since then and they are starting to appear in a couple of the neighbouring meadows in quite large groups.

Green winged orchid

A week ago only a couple of orchids were in flower and the meadow was yellow with cowslips. Now the yellow is dotted all over with bright purple. There are also quite a number of pale pinks and whites to be seen and on these the green veining on the sepals is much clearer.
They are wintergreen and have a short dormant period in late summer. The new season’s leaves appear in the autumn, so they can be vulnerable to overgrazing in winter when a hay meadow is normally grazed. Careful stock management is required to maintain a large healthy population.

Green winged orchid

It is pollinated by bees but doesn’t produce nectar, though it may offer them some sweet sugary sap instead (like the Early purple and Pyramidal orchids) which is some compensation for the deception. The Green winged orchid used to be common and widespread but changes in agriculture have reduced site numbers by 50% in the last 50 years and sites are still being lost.

My first ever Early Spider Orchid

Early spider orchid

I’m so excited by this one, the Early spider orchid Ophrys sphegodes. I’ve never seen these before so I decided to make the effort. I drove 3 hours down to the Dorset coast, Durleston Country Park on the edge of Poole harbour. This is one of a very few UK sites for this orchid. It only grows on the south coast, in Kent and Sussex as well as Dorset, and there is a very large population at Samphire Hoe on a reserve made from a huge spoil heap created by the excavation of the channel tunnel.

Early spider orchids

It is closely related to the bee orchid and they share a pollination technique. they look, feel and even smell like a female Andrena bee. When the male tries to mate with the flower, he collects the pollen and then transfers it as he tries it on again with the next flower. It is an amazing feat of mimicry.
They are the most charming little flowers, only about 10cm tall with their heads bobbing in the sea breeze. I’d say they are well worth a long drive.

Early purples – a woodland or a meadow plant?

Early purple orchid

Early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) is the first orchid to flower in my home county, Herefordshire. I live at the edge of the Woolhope Dome, which is a calcareous bump in the red clay of the county and I am lucky to have some lovely reserves and orchid sites nearby.

On a Sunday evening in late April I went out to see what I could find. Lea and Pagets Wood had dozens in flower alongside wood anemone and bluebells just starting to open.

Early purple orchid

Then I went up to one of the small wildflower meadows on the Woolhope Dome and there they were in amongst a mass of cowslips.
Sometimes they have spotted leaves and sometimes plain green. When they are growing in a meadow they are easily confused with the Green Winged Orchid, especially if it is a plain leaved plant, and you need to look closely at the petals to see which it is.

Early purple orchids

First orchid of the year

I’m really happy to find my first orchid in my own garden. This is a common spotted orchid coming up in one of the small meadow patches that I sowed about 5 years ago. There are quite a few, it’s great to see them there