The days are so short here in Shetland during the winter. Some days, when the sky is low and seems too small for all the clouds crammed into it, it barely gets light at all. I shouldn’t be surprised after 13 years living here, closer to the Arctic Circle than London, but somehow every winter still catches me slightly unawares.
As dark as it may get, there’s always light just around the corner. From Valentine’s Day onwards the day-length begins to perceptibly gallop towards the endless days of summer.
There are stirrings of life – the naturalised snowdrops at home are now nosing their way up through the thatch of last year’s dead grass – but it will be a few months yet before our wildflowers really get going here in the islands north of Scotland. Down in the balmy south of England though everything will be happening much sooner and, for me, that means it’s soon time to start looking for orchids and laying down some words on paper about them…
I’m far from the first writer to find inspiration in orchids. I stand overshadowed by the very best – William Shakespeare was a great fan of our wildflowers and sowed them liberally throughout his plays. Perdita certainly knew her spring flowers in The Winter’s Tale, recognising daffodils,
“That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phœbus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds.”
Ever since I first read Shakespeare at school I was in thrall to his storytelling and his evident love of language. As a young naturalist I was aware that he was using plenty of simile and metaphor rooted in the natural world, and that endeared him to me all the more. I wonder if Shakespeare is still taught in schools as much as he was in my rural Dorset school in the 1980s? I hope so.
But back to those orchids – Perdita didn’t mention the first of the British species to bloom every year, the beautiful and still not uncommon Early Purple Orchid; but Shakespeare certainly seems to have known them – as much for their bawdy context as their beauty. In Hamlet Gertrude speaks of,
“crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name.”
It’s the long purples that are, of course, the Early Purple Orchids. They were known in English folklore as the ‘Adam and Eve root’ – their roots looked not dissimilar to testicles, and witches were reputed to have made love potions from them. Whether these love potions induced love or were pure aphrodisiac I don’t know. Those liberal shepherds seem to imply the latter…
This year is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare – an event that’s being marked worldwide, celebrating his work and its continued relevance to this very day. This year is also the year in which I will be writing a book all about Britain and Ireland’s orchids, the family of wildflowers I love above all others – and I’ll soon be making a start on that by going to see Shakespeare’s long purples.
You may or may not see or read something by, or inspired by, Shakespeare this coming spring and summer – though I wholeheartedly recommend you do! – but why not try to catch up with some of Britain’s native orchids? There’ll be some in flower somewhere near you in no time at all.