The lost orchids

IMG_6882 Dorset Green-winged DL editIn the course of researching Orchid Summer I spent days immersed in the historical appearances orchids made in folklore and literature alike. Many enjoyed regional names every bit as colourful as the flowers themselves. Yet now, in parallel with the startling decline of many of our native orchid species, those names have all but vanished too.

Giddyganders are a good example. I’ve read recently an assertion that this is the name by which Green-winged Orchids Anacamptis morio are still known in Dorset – sadly, quite inaccurately.

Writing in 1844, the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes said of the giddygander the “most common species of orchis are so called in the Vale of Blackmore.” Yet, growing up there, 150 years later in the 1980s, the name appeared to be entirely lost, for I never heard it from any of the old countrymen and women I met during my extensive orchid-hunting travels around the Blackmore Vale.

IMG_9875 edit FBUnfortunately, in large part, the orchid in question had been largely lost too by this time. Green-winged Orchids had been formerly relatively common in unimproved hay meadows throughout the north of the county, but were by then found only in scattered pockets, victims of agricultural ‘progress’ in the form of sterile, re-seeded, sugar-rich fields of grass grown for silage. A monoculture of modern grass had replaced the species-rich hay meadows and, with them, the traditional names seemed to have passed away too. I’m sure that the giddyganders name is remembered only now in nostalgic reminiscence.

IMG_7310 edit EPO and English BluebellThe loss of names isn’t inextricably linked to the loss of the orchids themselves. Early Purple Orchids Orchis mascula remain fairly commonplace across Britain and Ireland – they were, understandably, always the best-known of all our native orchid species. This ubiquity is reflected in the rich variety of historic names they once enjoyed – reportedly as many as one hundred regional names once existed for it, from Gethsemane in Cheshire to Adder’s Flower in the south-west of England. Yet how often do we hear those names actually used? I’d suggest never, for all some might, romantically, infer otherwise.

IMG_4594 alba with spots tweetsizeIt’s a tragedy, this homogenisation of our rural botanical language. We have lost both biodiversity and lingual diversity in the past 200 years. Robert Macfarlane’s gorgeous new book, The Lost Words, is a beautiful thing – a visually and emotionally spellbinding book that provides a defiant last-stand against the emasculation of our wild language. It contains words to conjure with, for adults and children alike.

Giddyganders may not still mean a thing to many, if any, in Dorset – but we should mourn the passing of our variable orchids’ names every bit as much as the decline of the flowers they once described.

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