I’ve spent the last few weeks catching up with the vanguard of our native orchids – Early Purple sharing woodland floors with carpets of Bluebells and Primroses, Green-winged nosing up through the dew-spangled grass of water meadows, and Early Spider Orchids on the coasts of Dorset and Kent.
The Early Spiders have a special place in my heart – they’re the first of the Ophrys orchids I ever saw in 1993, a small colony in the heart of the Crown landscape art installed on the chalk downs above Wye in Kent in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII.
(I checked on the colony recently, and found the entire hillside sadly choked with thick, rank grass and encroaching shrub – many pioneer saplings of Hawthorn, Sycamore and Dog-rose – but no sign of the Early Spider Orchids, nor the Green-winged that clung to the slopes below; and precious little hope for the later-flowering Bee, Burnt, Fragrant and Man Orchids that used to stud the short herb-rich sward that once characterised the hillside).
Happily Early Spiders are still relatively abundant elsewhere along the south coast of England from Kent west to Dorset. Those on Dorset’s Purbeck coastline represent colonies decades old, but those found on the reclaimed land at Samphire Hoe in Kent are relative newcomers.
If you’ve never visited, Samphire Hoe is well worth making the effort to reach – comprising 30 hectares beneath the famous white cliffs of Dover, the land was created from the spoil quarried from beneath the English Channel during the construction of the eponymous tunnel. Nothing quite prepares you for the botanical treat that’s in store as you drive down the dramatic, steep tunnel bored through the cliff to emerge blinking into the sunshine below. (Though it’s not all about the plants – Peregrine Falcons, Stonechats and Ravens are your constant companions while you hunt for orchids here…)
Given the presence of Early Spider Orchids on the clifftop sward above and the vertiginous vegetated slopes of the cliffs that plunge down to Samphire Hoe it was perhaps not so surprising that they started to appear on the latest addition to Britain’s landmass – but nobody was quite ready for the sheer numbers that began to emerge as the years rolled by – in excess of 10,000 plants in a good year.
We tend to think of orchids as delicate, fussy and precious flowering plants – but the Early Spiders at Samphire Hoe give the lie to this – they emerge literally everywhere – from bare chalky soil, in short grass, at the edge of the car-park and in the gravel of the footpaths – even from cracks in the tarmac!
They’re not only tenacious – they’re also marvellously plastic and variable, with all manner of variations in the markings and colouration of their flowers displayed. This weekend I devoted hours to wandering slowly around looking for oddities, the quirks and oddballs that their genes occasionally throw up. Var.flavescens is a well-known example, with the rich chocolate-ruby tones of the labellum replaced with muted tones of subtle green…
…but my favourite was, by a long chalk, this pretty plant where the conventionally green petals and sepals had been replaced with, respectively, delicate coral pink and snow white with the merest tracery of green veining, and the lavishly marked labellum had a rosy pink fringe. This was an orchid to rival, in miniature, any of the flamboyant tropical species.
The orchid season is only just getting under way, and already I have one plant that’s going to take a lot of beating as my favourite individual of the year!