I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks working on my orchid manuscript. It’s beginning to take form, and a pleasing life of its own – it draws me in, won’t let me go, and demands feeding. Actually finding the orchids in the wild this year was only the beginning – in some ways, the easy bit.
The really challenging part and, in many ways, the most rewarding aspect of writing this book, has been following the faint clues, pulling at threads until the concealing shrouds unravel, finding the stories hidden in the past that demand telling, and putting together unconnected, obscure fragments that form compelling new tales all their own.
This research has been online, in books and journals, in museums and herbariums, in person and via correspondence, in Britain and Ireland and much, much further afield in North and South America, mainland Europe and the Middle East… even in Japan and New Zealand. My travels, both in person and virtually, have taken me around the world. Hunting for orchids in the green fragments of overgrown lots in New York wasn’t on the agenda at the start of the year… but I found myself there too, botanising to the soundtrack of the city. I love how the year evolved.
The next few weeks and months will see the writing and editing intensify further still. My desk is awash with notes, books with their page corners turned over and annotations scribbled in the margins. My journal is crammed with descriptions of people I have met, conversations I’ve had. And those people… the orchid world has more than its fair share of characters every bit as colourful as the flowers that consume them. It’s been a rollercoaster ride through this kaleidoscope world.
I love orchids as much as the next orchidophile – that’s no secret by now – but I’m a birder too, and that inevitably means I have a soft spot for not only the extravagantly colourful, but the subtle too. (Birders are infamous for their love of little brown jobs, or LBJs).
Britain has a small but select band of green-flowered orchids, and these naturally featured amongst all the other flowers I saw this year. For some they might have played second fiddle to the more ostentatious, flamboyant orchids. But not for me – I wanted to see and enjoy them all.
From Musk Orchids on the open tops of Iron Age hillforts, via Fen Orchids in mires threaded with Grass Snakes and quartered by harriers, to Green-flowered Helleborines in the sun-baked dunes of the coastal north-west where families played heedless of the orchids in their midst.
I’ve scoured wet seeps in remote corners of Scotland for diminutive Bog Orchids, and walked through drifts of Common Twayblades ever playing the bridesmaids to the sun-dappled and colourful Lady Orchids of the woodlands of Kent.
And I’ve hunted for scarce green variations of Broad-leaved Helleborine and Early Spider, Fly and Bee Orchids – all less colourful than their peers… but maybe all the better for that.
I mustn’t lose sight of the impulse that initially drove me to start this grand tour. There are stories to be told that surround all these plants, the people who seek them and the places in which they’re found. But, ultimately, it’s the plants themselves that beguile.