It’s been another glorious Shetland summer day here, bright sunshine and clear blue skies for the most part. What better then to do than head north on an orchid hunt?
First stop was at the Keen of Hamar on Unst, where for the most part the orchids are going over now, their seed pods swelling and what’s left of their flowers looking very frazzled and ‘burnt’. One or two Frog Orchids still had a bit of life left in them, though this photo was one taken last month when they were all fresh and sprightly.
On then to look for the real reason for another pilgrimage to the far north – Heath Fragrant Orchids Gymnadenia borealis. Until comparatively recently there was just one Fragrant Orchid species, though it’s now been split into three recognisable valid species – Common, Heath, and Marsh Fragrant Orchids. They were hitherto believed to be subspecies of the one ‘Fragrant Orchid’ species. Still with me? Good… the differences between the three species are subtle, but distinctive – and up there in Unst are Shetland’s only colony of Heath Fragrants. And very lovely they were looking too, just bursting into flower.
Subspecies are tricky things. Take the Early Marsh Orchids I found last month, also on Unst – according to the orchid-hunter’s bible, Harrap’s “Orchids of Britain & Ireland”, Shetland is home to the subspecies coccinea – in the south mainland only. Judging by the photos I took of the ones I found, they’re dead ringers for the subspecies incarnata. And then there’s a photo of an orchid floating around online, taken on Unst at a different location, identified as an Early Marsh Orchid, subspecies pulchella. (Not to mention several mislabelled photos also online of Northern Marsh Orchid, and Northern Marsh / Heath Spotted Orchid hybrids). So are there one, two or even three subspecies of Early Marsh Orchid present in Shetland? Tricky things, subspecies. Have another uncomplicated Heath Fragrant Orchid!
Much less complicated are Bog Orchids – and if you thought the Lesser Twayblades last month were a touch subtle, check these out – they’re absolutely tiny, just three centimetres high at best, and are the very devil to find in wet, lush vegetation.
Heading back across Yell, I stopped at a site I’d looked for them previously with no success – determined this time to give it as long as it took. Eventually I got my eye in, and found a nice compact colony of 17 flowering plants, and a number of ‘blind’, non-flowering examples too. They’re gorgeous, delicate little plants, and just like those Lesser Twayblades, I bet they’re overlooked elsewhere in Shetland…