After last year’s rainbow immersion into the world of British and Irish native orchids whilst researching my next book, it was always going to be hard to kick the orchid habit as the new flowering season began to unfold. I watched, jealously, from afar in Shetland whilst photos of the first orchids of 2017 began bursting onto social media – at first from southern Europe and then, as spring swept rapidly north, from the south coast of England.
My very own case of orchidelirium shows no signs of abating – as bewitched as the Victorians who built vast orchid ‘ovens’, or heated glasshouses, in which to house their imported tropical orchids, I couldn’t resist the temptation for very long. It was time to dive back in… but this time I would explore pastures news, in the orchid-rich Aude département of France.
My journey to France was via Dorset where, after wandering coastal fields carpeted with Early Spider Orchids Ophrys sphegodes and a small colony of unusually candy-striped Green-winged Orchids Anacamptis morio, I stopped to see some extraordinary hybrid orchids that were discovered last year on a roadside in the county. There were precious few clues revealed at the time as to the precise location but, fortunately, more than enough for me to solve the riddle – an embankment just a stone’s throw from where I once lived in the 1990s.
These unusual hybrids are believed to be the offspring of Fly Ophrys insectifera and Woodcock Ophrys scolopax Orchids – the former a relatively scarce native of Dorset; the latter hitherto unknown from the British Isles, albeit a species that’s fairly commonplace in mainland Europe.
Nobody knows how these hybrids came to be here – there’s no sign of a parent Woodcock Orchid nearby, though presumably there may once have been at least one plant there.
Was this original parent plant a natural colonist, or one inadvertently introduced when the embankment was reseeded by the local council with an imported wildflower mix? Or were the viable hybrid seeds in that mix? Was there ever an imported wildflower mix? Nobody knows. The waters are muddied still further by the nearby presence of hybrid Fly and Bee Ophrys apifera Orchids…
What is certain, however, is that the Fly x Woodcock hybrids that endure there to this day are delicate, beautiful things. I simply had to see them… Their embankment home is an exposed, public place and, in the hour I photographed and studied them, a succession of curious locals stopped to ask me what I was looking at – a passing tree surgeon, the head keeper from the local estate, and a policeman! I showed them all the orchids, and we had a chat about what they were and why they were so unusual.
Once I arrived in the Aude I found plenty more Woodcock Orchids, in a spectrum of colour combinations that would put a Fabergé egg to shame. One particular mountainside meadow boasted dozens of them, with no fewer than eight other different orchid species all in flower around them at the same time. The Aude’s reputation as an orchid mecca was clearly well-deserved…
Lady Orchids Orchis purpurea, a rare species in Britain mostly restricted to the woodlands of Kent, were ubiquituous – every roadside verge seemed to sport their large, deep burgundy and white conical flower spikes. With so many of them – and plenty of their close relatives, Man Orchis anthropophora and Military Orchis militaris Orchids in close attendance – it was no surprise that I found a number of their searingly colourful, variable hybrid offspring in the course of my short initial stay in the département.
My time there was all too brief, though I’m happy to say I’ll have plenty more opportunities to explore the area properly in future, but was more than long enough to thoroughly whet my appetite for my next visit. One particular orchid, however, was at the very top of my wanted list for this particular trip – Neotinea conica is a small, beautiful, milky-white and rose-pink spotted orchid found mainly on the Iberian peninsula and known from only a handful of sites in France. One of these was near Bugarach, a few minutes from where I was staying – I dearly wanted to see these special plants.
Happily, in a large sloping field studded with Green-winged Orchids and Burnt Orchids Neotinea ustulata, I readily found my first Neotinea conica – and they were every bit as gorgeous as I’d hoped they would be, nestling in the lush grass like tiny, flecked snowballs, unseen until one was almost on top of them. Nearby were the rare hybrids between them and N.ustulata – known, appropriately given their location, as Neotinea ×bugarachensis, their flowers intermediate between both parents.
My first orchid expedition of 2017 had started with a rare hybrid orchid on England’s south coast, and ended with a rare hybrid orchid in the foothills of the Pyrenees – a tremendous start to the year’s botanising – and had been punctuated with other marvellous sightings en route. I had been serenaded by Nightingales, startled by a close encounter with an unperturbed Wildcat in broad daylight, and buzzed by aerobatic Crag Martins.
I can’t wait to return.