The captivatingly beautiful native orchid is unfortunately one of Britain’s most endangered wildflowers, but they can still be seen if you look in the right places, says Ben Jacob, author of Outlaw Orchids.
British orchids are in decline – some of them are gradually approaching extinction, and others – to the recent collapse of the population. This is a consequence of the transition from millennia-old forms of land use to industrialization that took place about two centuries ago. During this period, clear-cutting of ancient forests, plowing of pastures, drainage of swamps, urbanization and the spread of chemicals in the land, water and air took place on an unprecedented scale. Many of these factors were provided by weak environmental legislation.
To these can be added the phenomenon of climate disturbance affecting the emergence of pollinators, flowering periods, orchid seed set, and the suitability of certain habitats. For a long time I was not particularly attentive to these issues, then, as I describe in my book Outlaw Orchid, a curious sequence of events made me think about the plight of these charming plants. I decided to save them.
I carefully researched local orchids, turned my kitchen into a micropropagation lab, my backyard into an orchid nursery, undertook nightly raids on construction sites to save orchids that would otherwise be destroyed, and started my own (unofficial) orchid reintroduction program.
Sometimes my actions were legally dubious. I don’t usually break the law, but with all the current data showing that existing policies, legislation – and even conservation efforts – are largely unable to reverse the declining orchid population, I decided to help in my own way. After all, I wasn’t about to stand by while the land that my ancestors had shaped, fought, and died for was slowly losing the exquisite part of what made these islands so special.
Where to see wild orchids in Britain
The heaths and marshes in this outstanding example of preserved land are wonderful places to find the tiny swamp orchid, pink clouds of heather-spotted orchids, the exquisite bee, the fragrant heather and the increasingly rare small butterfly.
Brownton Burrows, North Devon
Slacks between huge dunes in this UNESCO biosphere reserve are home to a large number of early marsh orchids. Their densely arranged flowers cover the sand in a spectrum ranging from white to brick red; swamp hellebores also bloom along with the famous pyramidal orchids and the rare swamp fragrant orchids.
Kenfig/Kinfig, South Wales
Dune habitat where early purple orchid season begins, followed by pyramidal, bee, chalky scented, common spotted, early marsh, broadleaf hellebore, and marsh hellebore.
Later in the summer, autumn ladies’ braids form spirals of small bells. The jewel in the crown here is a rare swamp orchid with pale green, skyward-looking flowers.
Hartslock Game Reserve, Oxfordshire
Overlooking the Thames, some good examples of English “little man” orchids can be seen: mixed branches of the cotton candy monkey orchid, a few female orchids, and a growing number of lady/monkey hybrids informally known as “donkeys”.
Upper Tisdale, County Durham
The area, which is arguably unparalleled in British flora, boasts early purple, chalky scent, common garfish, common spotted, northern bog and early bog, small and large butterflies, and the rare dark red hellebore.
Feoch Meadows, Ayrshire
One of the best British examples of traditional grasslands, where orchids include the small butterfly, large butterfly, scented heather, the increasingly rare frog orchid and the rare small white.
“Saving British orchids is about more than the beauty of the wild; it is about protecting and preserving the rich tapestry of our natural heritage.”
A frog, a bird’s nest, a bee, a fly, a monkey, a late spider, a lizard – if you think these are the ingredients for a powerful Halloween drink, think again: welcome to Britain’s enchanting array of wild orchids. Orchids are the most diverse and highly developed flowering plants on the planet. With over 30,000 species (compared to 6,399 mammal species), the vast majority of them live in tropical areas. It was them that the rich Victorians frantically imported for big money from the jungles of Asia and America. Since then, tropical orchids have eclipsed Britain’s native flowers to such an extent that many people today simply don’t realize that we host over 50 species.
In early spring, the first flowers of the British orchid appear. On several cliff tops along the south coast of England, stocky plants with small light green leaves open fuzzy brown flowers surrounded by a crown of five light green “legs”. Centuries ago, herbalists thought these flowers resembled small fat-bellied spiders enough to call the plant an early spider orchid, and the name stuck.
To me, they look more like little paper models of weird lime and chocolate lollipops fluttering in the breeze. In fact, their intricate combination of shape, color, and texture, as well as their scent, mixed from over 100 different chemicals, has nothing to do with spiders (or lollipops). Rather, it has evolved to perfectly mimic those of the solitary female bee, which tricks newly emerged male bees into attempting to mate with the flower. In this process (known as “pseudocopulation”), the bee pollinates the plant.
Away from the southern cliffs, the first blooming orchid of the year is usually the early purple orchid. Its flower spiers rise like bright mauve hyacinths among bluebells, primroses and primroses on old hedges, unpainted edges, in ancient forests and meadows. Around the same time, green-winged orchid flowers appear in traditionally managed meadows – like clusters of graceful green-and-white-striped hats.
With the onset of summer in certain parts of the country, among wild thyme, milkweed, bud vetch and swaying meadow grasses, a chorus of bees and crickets hums in the air, the wings of butterflies and diurnal moths flicker, the whole spectrum of British orchids bloom, enchantingly beautiful, as if forged by Faberge. There are elusive swamp orchids no taller than a thumb; many species and varieties of swamp orchids – early, southern, northern, mopsley, heather, Irish, common spotted and frog – give bouquets of spotted pinks, purples, raspberries and even, in the case of frogs, green, edged rusty.
Military orchid, burnt, man, lady and monkey prefer well-drained meadows and clearings, where they bloom flowers in the form of men with stocky limbs and hoods or hats on their heads (why this form? We do not know). The spectacular orchid lady resembles a cloud of little women in burgundy skirts and hats blown into the sky by the wind. The common twyblade may have unassuming columns, shaggy with pale green flowers, but don’t let appearances fool you: it was one of the first orchids ever recorded in English (in 1548) and can outlive a human by decades.
In the shady depths of the beech forests, an otherworldly bird’s nest (named for its scruffy, nest-like rhizomes) lives underground without sunlight, only releasing its bone-coloured flowers into daylight. Our two species of butterfly orchids – the increasingly rare small butterfly and the more common large butterfly – have flowers that look like Dali’s lemon meringue winged snakes. They are pollinated by moths, attracted by their lily-like fragrance and the ethereal glow they radiate in the light of the moon and stars. On the contrary, the lizard orchid is said to smell like a goat and may have yard-high banners strangled with twisted petals that look like lizard tails.
With the onset of summer, British hellebore bloom. Some of them are forest plants, others prefer northern limestone habitats; some have flowers like blunt-ended five-pointed stars hanging from tall stems, others have thin, writhing stems and graceful flowers that open like birds in flight. The critically endangered red hellebore is found in only a few protected areas and is one of the rarest plants in Britain.
As summer turns into autumn, Britain’s last wild orchids, autumn ladies’ curls, raise their little spiers hung with pale, honey-smelling bells and offer their nectar to ridiculously large bumblebee pollinators. Charles Darwin studied how bumblebees pollinate these flowers and how this orchid has a very clever mechanism for cross-pollination. Thus, these local flowers confirmed his theory of co-evolution: flowers would not look and function the way they did without the presence of bumblebees. Likewise, without their pollinators, orchids like the early spider would not have evolved to look, feel, and smell like them.
When winter sets in, the autumn bulrushes die off and the next generation of species begins to emerge, which flowered early in the year, waiting out the winter as low leaf rosettes until the flowering and seed-setting process begins in spring. again. This is a cycle of growth and rebirth and the creation of new generations, in which these plants and their ancestors participated for about 66 million years. Unfortunately, this process is increasingly disrupted by human activity. This makes the orchid species increasingly rare on these islands.
Like all of our flora, orchids have evolved to inhabit the ecosystems characteristic of these islands, such as ancient beech forests, swamps, wastelands, forest edges, swamps and grasslands. Humans have made these habitats fragmented and sparse. One type of orchid, summer women’s curls, became extinct in the UK in the 1950s. The other, Irish women’s curls, died out in the 1990s. A magnificent lady’s slipper with a sunny yellow pouch and burgundy braids clings in the wild as a separate plant.
Banana-scented ghost orchid has not been seen for 13 years. Gone forever? Maybe.
With the exception of a few interested scientists, conservationists and enthusiasts, little attention has been paid to these disappearances. For this reason, raising awareness of British orchids is about more than preserving beauty in the wild; it is about protecting and preserving the rich tapestry of our natural heritage for future generations.
Ben Jacob is the author of Outlaw Orchids, both published by John Murray Press.