I’m back in Shetland after a busy spell of criss-crossing the country in search of what may be our most enigmatic group of native orchids, the Epipactis helleborines. It seems every field of natural history attracts a subculture of particular obsession and, where European orchids are concerned, it’s these helleborines that have the most ardent followers – self-dubbed Epipactophiles.
Most are friendly and helpful; some are clannish and secretive; and a very few are downright rude and arrogant. It’s been quite an insight into what orchids can do to a man – and it seems it’s always men who fall into the latter category…
I’ve met a fair few of all these characters in recent weeks while I’ve immersed myself in the orchids that consume them. I’ve found myself falling under the helleborines’ spell too. At first glance, there are a mere eight species of Epipactis found in Britain. Once you factor in myriad varieties and a scattering of hybrids you’ve got a witch’s brew of possibilities.
And not a little magic.
Compared to the orchids that went before this summer, the helleborines at first glance seem fairly understated. (Well, most of them – Dark Red Helleborines and Marsh Helleborines are as flamboyant as they come). Look closely at all of them though and there’s subtle beauty to be seen – glorious sculpted flowers with frills, cups and tense arching curves; jewel faceted highlights of colour; and many with the delicious seasoning of scarcity or downright rarity.
There are so many stories attached to what I’ve seen, where I’ve been, and who I’ve been fortunate enough to meet along the way. I’ve unscrewed deer ticks from my legs after exploring limestone pavements looking for hybrid helleborines, been taken to see Dune Helleborines in a landscape blurring Subaru Impreza Cosworth, and have sought Narrow-lipped Helleborines in deep beech woodland by torchlight.
I’ve laid amongst Dark Red Helleborines whilst Northern Brown Argus butterflies dogfight, court and bask all around me. I’ve had whistled conversations with curious Bullfinches, and I’ve stumbled across illicit affairs while looking for Violet Helleborines.
For sheer rarity it’s hard to beat Lindisfarne Helleborine, found only on the eponymous island in the dune slacks of the western peninsula that flanks the tidal causeway that links it to the mainland.
For sheer drama, what can possibly better a Violet Helleborine lacking all chlorophyll, a shockingly pink wraith in the woods? For perplexing intrigue, one need look little further than the various hybrids and curious varieties of helleborine up on the remote Cumbrian steadfast of Hutton Roof.
From limestone pavements and cathedral like beech woodlands, to heavy metal infused riverine spinneys and salty dune slacks. Helleborines are everywhere, if only one looks hard enough. I’ve explored, I’ve looked in places I’ve never heard of let alone dreamt of botanising in and, above all, I’ve made good new friends and I’ve seen some remarkable flowers. The stories of my travels will need to keep for another day. For now, you’ll have to make do with an amuse bouche of photos…