It’s been quite a while since the last blog post – weeks filled with orchid hunting the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland, looking for plants of all species, collecting colourful photos and stories wherever I went.
I’ve so much to tell, but must keep a lot of it to myself for now. If I share everything at this stage, my book will be a shadow of what I hope it will come to be…
It’s hard to pick favourites – no, it’s impossible to do so – but I’ve long had a soft spot for Lady Orchids. I’d seen a few orchid species by the time I moved to Kent in the early 1990s, but I vividly remember the moment I saw my first Lady Orchid. My friend, Steph, found it while we were walking near the Devil’s Kneading Trough on the edge of the Wye NNR. With hindsight it was an atypical sighting – this is a woodland species, for the most part – and this particular flower towered above us in rank grass above a sunken path through the chalk.
Towered is the operative word – Lady Orchids have real presence. They have architecture; thick, sturdy stems hold large sculpted flowerheads high above the ground – often more than a foot high. A close look reveals the ladies from which the flower takes its name – blousy white petticoats speckled with burgundy counterpoints, capped with a burgundy bonnet. Look more closely still, and those freckles are revealed as minute spikes like those found on a fritillary caterpillar.
Immerse yourself in a Kentish woodland glade full of them and you begin to see they’re more variable than they at first appear en masse. For some, there are more or less freckles. Some replace the burgundy with pale, watermelon-flesh pink tones. Others are all white with lime sherbet green bonnets. Some mix the two extremes. Some have culottes instead of skirts.
Just occasionally, some are more extreme still. In the Chilterns I came across a colony of hybrids, the offspring of Lady Orchids and one of Britain’s three colonies of Monkey Orchid. Bigger and more lavishly coloured than either parent, their hybrid vigour was readily apparent and they covered an area of warm hillside in a sprawling, lusty horde.
Back in Kent this spring was something even more unusual. Known only in Britain from a plant that flowered back in the 1980s at another of those three Monkey Orchid colonies, in May this year a local orchid enthusiast found a solitary Man Orchid x Monkey Orchid hybrid. Known by some as ‘the missing link orchid’, this was a must-see for me. It didn’t disappoint…
Monkey Orchids are pretty funky things in their own right. Man Orchids have an understated beauty all their own. Their chimaera offspring was utterly beguiling.
These hybrids are quirks, unexpected and for the most part happy accidents. I loved seeing them as much as the next orchid hunter, but it was revisiting the pure Lady Orchids that really moved me. In a woodland clearing with several hundred all around me, with Duke of Burgundy butterflies* buzzing through the sunshine, I was transported back twenty years to my student days.
Much of Kent has changed in the interim period. Some for the better – there are areas of habitat much improved with the passage of time and better management – and some for the worse. Every day in Kent felt a little like a disconcerting dream – the ones where you’re somewhere you know well, but everything is ever so slightly different to how it should be. Away from man-made change – new roads, changed villages and towns, more people, more cars – I found solace in the wild places and the Lady Orchids.
When it rained – and of course it rained, this being an English spring – I found a spider on one of them. As the rainfall intensified she deliberately moved beneath a floret and sheltered there until the downpour passed.
I knew how she felt – when life throws you, it’s good for the soul to shelter somewhere beautiful in the countryside. These are safe places – more so now we appear to appreciate their rarity and their fragility.
*I originally wrote “Duke of Burgundy Fritillaries” here, being sufficiently old-fashioned to remember when they were known as such despite not technically being fritillaries. I’ll bow to convention and merely call them Duke of Burgundy… While tempted to quietly mourn the change of name, I shouldn’t succumb to that – Lady Orchids were once known as Brown-winged Orchid, a much less attractive name altogether. Progress is sometimes a good thing, even when it involves changing English species names.