One of the highlights of the great orchid hunt I undertook in 2016 as part of my research for Orchid Summer was seeing the so-called missing link orchid in Kent – the hybrid orchid formed of a union between Man Orchid Orchis anthropophora and Monkey Orchid O. simia. Given the official, snappy Latin title O. x bergonii, this plant was discovered at a known Monkey Orchid colony in Kent by a local orchid-hunter – a find that animated the British native orchid world in the days that followed, as news of his discovery spread, like wildfire, via social media.
In Britain this particular hybrid is startlingly rare – a consequence of both parents’ respective rarity. Man Orchids are fairly uncommon in southern England, while Monkey Orchids are decidedly rare – the latter are known from only three locations, one in Oxfordshire and two in Kent. Their hybrid progeny is said to be more frequently encountered in mainland Europe though, from personal experience in France, I tend to think that’s fairly relative – I have found many examples of the closely related Lady O. purpurea x Military O. militaris Orchid hybrids, smaller numbers of Lady x Monkey Orchid, a single Man x Military Orchid, and just a handful of O. x bergonii.
Still, the 2016 Kentish example was not the first of its kind. Britain’s first recorded record, a single plant, was found in the 1980s at the same site as the later 2016 example, flowering twice between 1985 and 1989. Back then, of course, in those pre-Internet days, news spread more slowly and organically by word of mouth. Nevertheless, word did get around – one of the wardens at the site recently shared with me his experiences of guarding the precious Monkey Orchids and their unusual offspring, and recalled that only a very few folk came to see it.
Photos of this historic plant are few and far between – it was, of course, not only the pre-Internet era but also back in the days of 35mm film photography. The images here were taken by the warden at the time, and are reproduced with his kind permission. Our correspondence also clarified that the two plants, separated by decades, were growing at different locations on the site – so we can say, with certainty, that they were different plants.
How had these hybrids come to pass? That such hybrids occur naturally is a matter of record – as noted beforehand, various hybrid permutations of the Orchis family can be found across their European range. The 1980s plant was subject to some speculation, however, that the hand of man had been involved. The Monkey Orchids at the site were regularly hand-pollinated between 1958 and the mid 1980s in an attempt to bolster their numbers. This initiative appeared to be successful, for the colony grew.
The site also boasts a modest number of Man Orchids. In 1985, amongst this mixed colony, single examples of both species were noted by the colony’s original finder, Hector Wilks, growing and flowering just a few centimetres apart – so it’s entirely possible that an insect may have cross-pollinated the two species. However, rumours have persisted that, either accidentally or even deliberately, the cross-pollination may have been done by man.
Why one would deliberately cross-pollinate Man and Monkey Orchids at a site devoted to conservation of the latter rare species is a question that’s long intrigued me, and seems inherently unlikely given the integrity and determination displayed for decades by Wilks in his efforts to conserve Kent’s precious few Monkey Orchids… I’ve always assumed that, if it happened, it would have been simple curiosity on the part of a third party but, as we’ll see, this is a hybrid that in a British context seems prone to mystery surrounding its origin.
The second plant to flower at the Kent site, in 2016, appears to be a smaller and less grandiose specimen than its predecessor. It was, however, still a fabulously attractive orchid, a confection of raspberry sorbet pink and lemony yellow flowers (see first picture, above, at the top of the blog). Sadly, however, 2016 appeared to be its one and only performance for, in the past two flowering seasons, there’s been no further sign of it.
The hybrids, while beautiful, are of course less important from a conservation perspective than the rare Monkey Orchids, and numbers of the latter have plummeted in recent years. I’ve visited the site, off and on, for a number of years now, and can bear witness to the decline of the Monkey Orchids there – the site seems a shadow of its former glories. In 1985, when the first hybrid appeared, between 30-50 Monkey Orchids and a similar quantity of Man Orchids were present – but in 2016, I found just five flowering Monkey Orchids some distance away from the new hybrid.
The story of Britain’s Orchis x bergonii does not, however, quite end here. A further plant was discovered in 2013 in Hampshire, with two flowering plants present in 2014, one of which appears to have flowered again in 2018. This O. x bergonii record was, from the outset, considerably more contentious than either of its Kentish counterparts. Those plants were found at a site that contained both Monkey and Man Orchids. These plants, however, were found at a site at which Man Orchids are incredibly rare, numbering just a handful of examples, and Monkey Orchids are entirely absent. Indeed, the nearest wild Monkey Orchids are many miles away in Oxfordshire; and the finder himself, in his account of the circumstances of the discovery in the excellent BSBI News, concluded that “after much consideration, the occurrence of this hybrid being natural is doubtful” (sic).
Note the deliberate “wild” prefixing those Oxfordshire Monkey Orchids… for rumour has it that there is an orchid enthusiast living some five miles away from the Hampshire site who has a colony of introduced Monkey Orchids, depending on which version of the tale one is to believe, growing either on his lawn or in his greenhouse. This, the theory goes, might account for the Monkey Orchid element of the hybrids’ origin.
The orchid world does love a good rumour, but it is also partial to some scientific rigour. The hybrids were subjected to genetic scrutiny, revealing that the maternal parent was a Man Orchid, and the paternal parent a Monkey Orchid. In other words, the pollen came from a Monkey Orchid – which is not, we understand, how O. x bergonii in France at least are generally formed, as there they usually have Monkey Orchids as their maternal parents. It’s also worth noting the difference between the appearance of the Hampshire plant (images taken in 2018) and the two different, but visually fairly consistent, Kentish examples (making, of course, allowance for the different tones displayed in the scanned and originally film-derived 1980s plant).
So we’re to believe an insect, after visiting the fabled local captive Monkey colony in Hampshire, or perhaps the even further afield Oxfordshire colony, then happened across the isolated, tiny colony of Man Orchids on the Hampshire downs, fertilised one, and the resulting seed produced the hybrid plants. Alternatively, perhaps viable hybrid-generating seed blew in from mainland Europe and just happened to lodge near the small Man Orchid colony? Neither theory seems very likely. The only alternative, then, would be that there was direct human intervention…
…which would be either in the form of transplanting hybrid stock dug up from mainland Europe, or bringing Monkey Orchid pollen to the site from elsewhere and manually fertilising a Man Orchid before allowing it to set seed. All of which brings us back to the delicious speculation about the psychology of why anyone would go to such lengths – simply curiosity, or perhaps something a little more complex?
With all three British O. x bergonii records the only certainty is their very uncertainty. We’ll never know if any of them occurred without some degree of human intervention, either deliberate or inadvertent, nor the motives, if any, that might have spurred those creative hands.
Whatever their origins, they’re all three of them good-looking orchids, and I am grateful to the photographers of both the 1980s Kent and the Hampshire examples for kindly agreeing to let me reproduce their images here alongside my images of the 2016 plant in, perhaps, the first occasion all three British plants have been shown together.
(You can read more about the 2016 plant, and many more colourful orchid stories besides, in my book Orchid Summer – published earlier this year by Bloomsbury. Reviewers have said some kind things about it, and I’d love you to pick up a copy and join me on exploration of the world of British and Irish orchids, the places in which they grow, and the folk past and present involved with plants and places alike).