My orchid odyssey is drawing towards a close now we’re into the early days of autumn. It’s been alternately wonderful, inspiring and, very occasionally, a little bit scary. The penultimate act of this drama were the helleborines, as colourful, enticing and varied as a Woolworths pick and mix. They’ve been followed by orchids that supplant helleborine exoticism with a graceful, subtle charm – the lady’s-tresses.
One of our native species is extinct – Summer Lady’s-tresses hasn’t been seen in its former southern English haunts for decades. Despite remaining locally common in northern France, it’s long gone from our shores – while occasionally it’s rumoured that well-intentioned orchidophiles have reintroduced them, those whispers have never come to anything substantial – and their habitat is probably lost now anyway.
That leaves three species: Creeping, Irish and Autumn Lady’s-tresses. Irish is something of a misnomer – those particular tresses are found in Ireland, granted, and also in a few areas of western Scotland – but they’re originally from North America. How did they get to Britain and Ireland? Some suggest they could be wind-borne colonists, their dust-like seeds blown across to pastures new by the prevailing westerly winds of autumn. Others surmise their seeds may have been carried on the feet of migrating wildfowl. Either theory is plausible, though we’ll never know for sure – but the flowers themselves are undeniably gorgeous, creamy-coloured and with strongly arched, long, green-veined lips.
I saw mine in Scotland on the wonderful islands of Colonsay and Oronsay – new islands to me, and ones I’ll be drawn back to in years to come. Beautiful orchids, stunning scenery, and Choughs, Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles? Yes please. Also in Scotland were many Creeping Lady’s-tresses, as hairy and reclusive as an old gillie. Found lurking in deep Caledonian pine forests with enticing orange chanterelle mushrooms all around, their avian accompaniments were family parties of calling Crested Tits overhead in the conifer depths.
For the last of the tresses I headed back to the south-west – and from the Isles of Scilly to Dorset I found Autumn Lady’s-tresses gracing short coastal turf at every turn. Beloved of bumblebees and botanists alike they are, barring the unlikely but yearned for discovery of a Ghost Orchid, the last orchids I’ll see this year. The adventure’s far from over though – I have a book to write now and, next year…?
There are orchids, places and new friends I’ve discovered this summer that I simply have to go back and see again. I think I’ll be returning to some of them for many years to come.