Orchids ablaze: Rare plants thriving all over the countryside

Wednesday 7th August 2013

bee orchid c Amy Lewisbee orchid c Amy Lewis

Orchids - one of the UK's most intriguing and beautiful groups of flowering plants – are enjoying particularly good displays this year.

One of the best displays of these exotic-looking flowers featured in the Chalk Pit at Houghton Regis in Bedfordshire, a site managed by the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire.  Reserve officers counted over 700 common-spotted, around 140 pyramidal and three bee orchids – an enigmatic species that attracts bees looking to mate due to the bee-like appearance of their flowers.

Caeau Llety Cybi reserve in Ceredigion, Wales, has produced wonderful displays of greater butterfly orchids, which number in the 600s – double the count from 2010, the highest year previously on record.

At Norfolk Wildlife Trust, conservation officers have been surveying common-spotted orchids in Dereham, where so many were counted that it has advised the town council to recognise the area as a County Wildlife Site. [1]

Orchids are only found in relatively few wild places so it’s great to hear that they are thriving not only on protected nature reserves but also in the wider countryside and even gardens

Paul Wilkinson, The Wildlife Trusts’ Head of Living Landscape, said:

Orchids are one of the most captivating plants to be found in the UK.  They are only found in relatively few wild places so it’s great to hear that they are thriving not only on protected nature reserves but also in the wider countryside and even gardens.”

Flamborough Cliffs, a coastal nature reserve managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, has seen a huge increase in northern marsh orchids this year, on a section of the site not formerly renowned for its displays. Elsewhere in Yorkshire, Kiplingcotes Chalk Pit has recorded a number of different orchid species blooming simultaneously in a rare show.

Shaun Pryor, a voluntary trainee ecologist with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, found a musk orchid growing at Malling Down nature reserve – the first time this species has been recorded here for seven years.

Similarly, at Ancaster Valley, a SSSI[2] managed by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, reserve officers have witnessed the reappearance of the fragrant orchid, which had not flowered since 2004.

Mark Schofield, Project Manager of Life on the Verge[3], the largest wildflower survey of Britain's roadside verges run by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, gives a possible explanation for this:

The re-emergence of some orchids, such as the fragrant, often reflects the favourable conditions of previous years for germination and underground development.  These undetected orchids experience delayed effects from past seasons that can cause sudden flushes in following years.

As these orchids may only flower once before dying and other species rest between series of flowering years, a number count from just one year is not always a reliable marker for overall population trends. This is why it is vital to monitor colonies of orchids over a long period of time.”

Orchids occur in a range of habitats from woodland and wetlands to grasslands and coastal dunes. Each species has different requirements in order to thrive and flower successfully so the reasons for such impressive displays are varied. For instance, Scottish Wildlife Trust has recorded many fluctuations in terms of orchid numbers this year, with some meadows showing far fewer plants while Auchalton Meadow, near Ayr, bloomed with a huge display of around 300 fragrant orchids.

The diverse flowering times of orchids, which can extend from early spring through to autumn depending on the chemical balance in the soil, also play a major part in accounting for these variations. This summer, pyramidal and common-spotted orchids have generally arrived several weeks late, which gives an indication that the recent weather has provided more suitable conditions as the season has developed.

Orchids can grow in gardens too but are sometimes unidentified due to their unfamiliar appearance and tendency to remain dormant for years at a time. Alf Simpson, a Sussex Wildlife Trust volunteer for over 40 years, counted 200 common-spotted orchids in his garden this year alone!


Notes for editors:

[1] County Wildlife Sites (CWS) are considered to be of value for wildlife in a county context. There are nearly 1,300 CWS in Norfolk, most of which are privately owned and have no public access. The CWS system in Norfolk is managed by a partnership of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk County Council and Natural England, with the lead role taken by Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

[2] Around 1/3 of our landholding in England is classified as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – around 35,000ha (The Wildlife Trusts also manage several hundred nature reserves across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Alderney - some of which are designated SSSI (or ASSI in Northern Ireland)). The SSSIs we look after in England are monitored and their condition assessed regularly by Natural England. In April 2013, 94.7% of the SSSIs we manage in England were classified by Natural England as 95% ‘favourable or recovering’ - a 1.7% increase on the previous year.

[3] Life on the Verge is the largest wild flower survey of Britain's roadside verges, which aims to identify the most important roadside verges for limestone grassland wildlife in South-West Lincolnshire, North-East Rutland and East Leicestershire. For more information, visit http://lifeontheverge.org.uk/.

Many species of orchid need carefully managed habitats and have specialist requirements. Some can be locally scarce and difficult to find, whilst others provide spectacular vistas of flower spikes numbering in their thousands in favourable years. All species rely to some extent on a complex symbiotic relationship with fungal partners, using nutrients provided by the fungi to aid seed survival before germination. This dormant stage can be lengthy and, once growth begins, some orchids may take another five years before flowering. Counts of flowering orchid spikes are often not a reliable indication of abundance because many species go through dormant phases between flowering and some flower only once before dying.

‘How many orchid species are currently native to the British Isles?’ - “[T]he British orchid flora currently consists of 52 species in 20 genera,” Richard M. Bateman, Jodrell Laboratory, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (2007).

There are Wildlife Trust nature reserves around the UK where you can find some of the later flowering orchids and many other wildflowers during the summer months. Mid-late summer species to look out for are marsh helleborine and autumn lady’s tresses – a delicate white orchid that grows in coastal areas and chalk grassland. 

Tagged with: Living Landscapes