Bee orchid © Jon Hawkins
Enter a bewitching world of men and monkeys, ladies and lizards, frogs and flies – our summer orchids.
The superstars of the wild flower world are the orchids.
Summer is a time for wild flower meadows, hillsides ablaze with colour and a-buzz with insects. The superstars of the wild flower world are the orchids, and now is the best time to go out and enjoy their glamorous allure. Of the fifty or so species that are native to the UK, some are surprisingly common and widespread, while others are our most sought after rarities, found only in a select handful of special places.
The beautiful bee orchid, whose flower famously mimics a furry-bodied bee to fool its pollinator, is actually amongst the more common species, often turning up on road verges as well as grasslands and open ground around gravel pits. Its more understated cousin, the fly orchid pulls off a similar trick on the edge of woodland. Look for the bizarre bird’s-nest orchid deeper in the woods. Growing up from the dense leaf litter, the bird’s-nest orchid is a parasite which steals all its nutrients from the roots of trees. As a result it has dispensed with the green chlorophyll that other plants use to make their food, and is a ghostly creamy-brown colour all over.
On chalk grassland, look for the dense pink flower spikes of pyramidal orchids and the taller, cylindrical spikes of fragrant orchid, which smell sweetly, especially in the evening. Less ‘fragrant’ and more ‘smelly’ is the lizard orchid. A rarity found at just a few sites in the south of England, this giant among orchids has a spike of gorgeously twisty, spiral-lipped ‘lizard’ flowers, and smells strongly of billy goats.
How to do it
The key to finding orchids is to do your research beforehand: target the right habitats at the right times of year. There are many sources of information: start with your local Wildlife Trust.Be very careful where you tread. As well as the obvious flower spikes there will be plenty of non-flowering leaf rosettes which you should avoid trampling. Tempting as it may be, don’t pick the flowers. Orchids look their best out in the wild, and some species are legally protected: you could be breaking the law.
If you can’t get to the special places listed below…Orchids can be found in all parts of the UK, in many different habitats and flowering throughout the year from the April spikes of early purple orchid in the spring to the delicate spirals of autumn ladies tresses in September.
A fabulous swathe of chalk grassland overlooking the Thames, Hartslock in Oxfordshire is renowned for its hundreds of monkey orchids, found at just three places in the country, as well as lady orchid and very unusually, the hybrid between the two. Other orchids found here include bee, pyramidal and common spotted orchids, common twayblade and white helleborine, while red kites soar overhead and both chalkhill and Adonis blues add a splash of colour later in the summer.
Armagh, Milford Cutting
Ayrshire, Feoch Meadows
Berkshire, Greenham and Crookham Commons
Brecknock, Vicarage Meadows
Buckinghamshire, Aston Clinton Ragpits
Cumbria, Waitby Greenriggs
Derbyshire, Priestcliffe Lees
Derbyshire, Rose End Meadows;
Dorset, Fontmell Down
Durham, Blackhall Rocks
Durham, Bishop Middleham Quarry
Essex, Chafford Gorges Nature Park
Gloucestershire, Elliott (Swifts Hill)
Gwynedd, Caeau Tan y Bwlch
Gwent, Pentwyn Farm
Hampshire, Noar Hill
Hertfordshire, Frogmore Meadow
Isle of Man, Close Sartfield
Kent, Yocklett’s Bank
Kent, Downe Bank
Kent, Park Gate Down
Lancashire, Salthill Quarry
Lincolnshire, Whisby Nature Park
Nottinghamshire, Wilwell Farm Cutting
Oxfordshire, Warburg Nature Reserve
Shropshire, Llynclys Common
Suffolk, Winks Meadow
Surrey, Howell Hill
Warwickshire, Ufton Fields
Wiltshire, Lower Moor Farm
Worcestershire, The Knapp and Papermill
Yorkshire, Wharram Quarry
Pyramidal orchid © Les Binns