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.
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.
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.
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.
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.