I’ve continued my orchid odyssey these past few weeks, finding my travels taking me to the rocky west coast of Ireland, the shingly shore of East Anglia and all points in between. The flowers have been brilliant, a kaleidoscope of shapes, colours and forms.
None more so than the Ophrys family, the insect-mimicking masters of deception and allure. With flowers of grotesque insect form and compelling pheromone scent they’re the sexy, surrealist masterpieces of the orchid world.
The best-known of their number in the British Isles are Bee Orchids. Brasher than Early Spider or Fly Orchids, much commoner than Late Spider Orchids – these are the ones that pop up on roadsides, in school playing fields and in the lawns of a lucky few households.
They’re marvellously mutable and plastic – their genes throw up all sorts of variations on the standard flower. For my money the most beautiful of all are those that have dispensed altogether with garish colours – var.chlorantha is a masterpiece of subtle cold whites and mossy greens.
Var.fulvofusca sees the rich chocolate brown tones dominate the body of the ‘bee’ to the exclusion of all others. There was just one of this particular variety to be seen this year in Dorset, an appointment I shared with singing Cetti’s Warblers and bemused early morning dog walkers.
Var.trollii is spectacularly deformed – indeed, for years it was believed to be a species in its own right, the elongated, thin flowers leading botanists to know it as the Wasp Orchid. I saw these a couple of metres away from speeding traffic in the Midlands.
Var.bicolor is a subtle affair, looking as if each flower has been half-dipped in chocolate. Almost good enough to eat – and indeed, the damp humid weather of late has been playing havoc with my orchid-hunting as legions of slugs and snails have been ravaging juicy orchids wherever they find them.
There are several named varieties – and myriad other forms that differ to one extent or another from the standard Bee Orchid. Var.belgarum is pretty close to the original, as is var.flavescens.
Some forms aren’t formally recognised, and some botanists can be a little dismissive of these oddities – but I, like many others, am content to revel in their variability and their beauty, and enjoy them for their own sake. What’s in a name? Not a great deal when a Bee Orchid is as stunning as any of these.