The Ophrys question

AP6I7268 FBWhen I set out to see all of Britain and Ireland’s orchid species in the course of researching Orchid Summer, seeing all of our native Ophrys orchids did not appear to offer an enormous challenge – we have, after all, just four species, namely Bee, Fly, Early and Late Spider Orchids. Of course, the reality was somewhat different as, in addition to seeing those four beautiful species I also searched for their myriad, jewel-like variations… and moreover, there was also the small matter of finding Britain’s sole, controversial, Sawfly Orchid.

AP6I7348 FBIt’s a very different story indeed in the rest of Europe, where there are – depending on which taxonomist’s views one subscribes to – over a dozen or closer to one hundred further species to be found. One taxonomist’s subspecies is another orchid fanatic’s full species…

I’ve spent a little time recently in the Aude department of France. Towards the end of my stay the first Ophrys orchids were beginning to come into flower – and which species these variable flowers could be ascribed to is a perfect metaphor for the flux and confusion that this particular family of orchids generates.

AP6I7072 blogsizeTo a British orchid-hunter, they look fairly similar to our Early Spider Orchids. So far, so good and, like our Early Spiders, the orchid flowers I found in Aude varied considerably in their appearance both in structure and patterning. So what were they?

Pierre Delforge’s monster European orchid field guide calls them Ophrys arachnitiformis, known colloquially as False Spider Orchid. The latter name is a handy one, as the Latin varies considerably between authorities – other botanists refer to them as Ophrys exaltata subspecies marzuola; while Henrik Pedersen, author of a monograph devoted to European Ophrys orchids, recognises them as Ophrys x arachnitiformis.

AP6I7138 blogsizeThat ‘x’ is telling – it indicates a hybrid origin. Pedersen contends that Ophrys x arachnitiformis is a “partially stabilised hybrid complex” – one born long ago, at least in part, from Early Spider and Late Spider Orchid parents… but with other subspecies of both of those species probably contributing their genes at some point or another. This is, by any standards, pretty vague stuff!

AP6I7154 blogsizeI find this sort of intractable orchid esoterica fascinating, though I appreciate that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea… but what I couldn’t ignore were just how lovely these, my first Ophrys orchids of 2018, actually were. I seemed to find them wherever I looked – both in the tranquil surroundings of earth tracks meandering through vineyards and, less salubriously, on roadside verges, beside abandoned industrial units and even growing alongside a rubbish bin outside a McDonalds.

AP6I7211 FBTheir variability is, if we’re following Pedersen’s lead, testament to their complicated heritage as well as part of their considerable charm. Delforge could, on a good day, probably make a handful of species out of them!

AP6I6835[1] edit O arachnitiformis pseudocopulation Quillan tweetsizeI was simply delighted to begin to immerse myself, once more, in orchids. Best of all, I finally got to witness one of the most remarkable facets of orchid biology – a male bee attempting to mate with an orchid flower, fooled into an act of sexual folly (known as pseudocopulation, kindly featured as a Word of the Day last week by Robert Macfarlane) both by the flower’s resemblance to an insect and by it creating scents that mimic the pheromones released by a virgin female bee. Seeing that for myself would have been good enough – but getting to photograph it too was just fabulous.

In just a few days time, however, I’ll be heading for the Eastern Mediterranean and an absolutely dizzying array of Ophrys species, subspecies and hybrids. I shall need to do my homework in advance of this, my first outing as a tour leader on the Greenwings Orchid Odyssey to Rhodes. Ophrys heaven awaits me…

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Giant orchids in wintery France

AP6I5683[1] edited blogsizeThe first week of March, in rural France, feels like an unlikely time and place in which to be orchid-hunting. The village in which I’ve been staying is still firmly in thrall to winter, with chimneys spooling thin tendrils of wood-smoke into an aching blue sky from early in the morning, and faded shutters for the most part remaining firmly closed except on the sunward side of the houses. The perfume of beech and oak hangs in the air.

AP6I5783[1] edited cropped blogsizeI have been exploring the village surrounds a little as the days have gone by. The trees remain in bud, and there are no wildflowers to be seen. This may only be the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees, but winter still grips the village and the countryside around it. Yet the signs of spring are there, if I look closely enough – there is a promise of orchids at my feet. On the riverbanks, alongside the surging white water of the river that rushes from a gorge into the valley in which the village huddles, I find glossy green rosettes of leaves. They are, I think, Lady Orchids, though I cannot be sure. Some of the leaves seem too narrow and straplike. Perhaps there are other species here too. I will need to be patient, to wait and see.

AP6I6020[1] edited blogsizeIf I hope to find orchids in flower at this early juncture of the year, I need to head southeast to the coast. A northerly wind buffets my car as I drive, making it difficult to chart a straight course. High-sided vehicles weave dangerously on the autoroute ahead of me. My destination is a small patch of undeveloped land on the edge of a large tidal lagoon, sandwiched between a sprawl of weather-beaten, neglected chalets, and saline flats on which Greater Flamingos, incongruously, sweep the water in a loose, pink, feeding huddle.

AP6I6311[1] edited blogsizeThe objects of this expedition are barely less unexpected – for here, rising magnificently from the scoured and bleached grass, are hundreds upon hundreds of Giant Orchids, Himantoglossum robertianum. Some flowerspikes are knee high, set upon thick, fleshy stems; others have snapped under the weight of their flowers and the strength of the ceaseless wind. Most have flowers of pale, glaucous pink – like a number of European orchids, each individual floret has an anthropomorphic, vaguely humanoid quality – though these are rounded and thickset, as if cast from melted candlewax or clay. Compared to the delicacy of Lady or Military Orchids, the Giant Orchids are golems.

AP6I5891[1] edited blogsizeYet not all are pink – some flowers are deepest purple; others are much paler, almost entirely white; and a very few of them sport shocking, vivid gooseberry-green fringes. They are simply magnificent, colossi by the standards of terrestrial orchids, pharos on the very edge of the Mediterranean.

I spend hours with them, battling the conditions. The sun is unremittingly bright, and the flowers themselves are in constant motion, vibrating and swaying as the wind thrums around us. It’s hard to tear myself away, but leave I must. I need to get home, to ply the fire with logs and put some heat in the fabric of the building and my bones.

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2017 – a review of a naturalist’s year

coverSomehow I find myself on the cusp of a new year and realise that, if I’m not quick, it’ll be too late to look back on the past twelve months as I’ll be too busy looking forward to the year to come… so I’d better get a move on, then.

Personally, there’s been a sense of a clock half-struck for much of 2017 – the manuscript for Orchid Summer was completed almost a year ago now, and has been passing through the various hoops and hurdles of the publishing process. Bloomsbury have been a joy to work with throughout and, while the most obvious manifestation of this is the gorgeous, Arts & Crafts-esque cover their talented designer Holly Ovenden has created for it, there has been plenty of other activity behind the scenes that has taken my raw material and wrought something I’m quietly proud of.

IMG_6415 Dorset Fly x Woodcock editThere’s not long now to wait until publication day – 8th March 2018 – so the waiting is almost over. While I’ve held bound, uncorrected proofs of Orchid Summer in my hands and had a little disbelieving I-did-this shiver, I can’t wait to see the finished hardback in the flesh. I only hope people enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

Meanwhile, there have been some fabulous orchid moments for me in the field again this year. The year began with some detective work on my part, marrying my local knowledge of the west Dorset with some online sleuthing to work out where a colony of Woodcock x Fly Orchid hybrids were to be found – they’d been reported in the BSBI’s excellent journal, BSBI News, but the location was withheld. I couldn’t miss seeing this new plant for Britain, and happily my intuition as to their whereabouts proved correct. Spring was off to a flying start.

IMG_8125 Aude N conica editMy first foray into the countryside near my new French base in the Aude was all-too-brief, but promised enormous potential in the years to come. The sheer numbers of Lady Orchids were astounding – they grow on the roadside verges there, commoner than dandelions – and off the beaten track I found myself lost in a plethora of novel species and hybrids. The milky subtlety of Neotina conica makes it a new favourite of mine.

IMG_9487[1] purple shot editI led my first wildlife tours for two companies this summer – a week of butterfly watching in Estonia for Greenwings, and closer to home here in Shetland a trip for Shetland Nature. Both companies make such a pleasant change, and are genuinely friendly, lovely wildlife tour operators to represent. Estonia was a new country for me, and that meant a host of new butterflies – and some new orchids too, including the incredibly localised Estonian endemic, Saaremaa Marsh Orchid, found only in a tiny corner of that lovely island. The fritillaries were particularly gorgeous and numerous, and it was terrific to renew my acquaintance with the improbably iridescent Purple-shot Copper.

I’ll be leading several tours for Greenwings in the coming months, starting with a week-long Orchid Odyssey in Rhodes in early April. I’m particularly looking forward to this one, as it promises 40-50 species of orchid (and many other wildflowers, freshly emerged butterflies, and migrant birds) in a sun-kissed and friendly island setting. The perfect way to emerge from a cold, northern European winter…

latirellaMuch closer to home, I made a handful of orchid discoveries in Shetland as the past summer wore on: a new, small colony of the coccinea subspecies of Early Marsh Orchid; the rare and spectacular hybrid between Early and Northern Marsh Orchid; and, thrillingly, an entirely new orchid species for Shetland – an isolated, small colony of Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids.

IMG_0200 edit n crop tweetsizeAs the flowering season closed, the autumn bird migration began in earnest. While this was far from a classic autumn for Shetland, we had our moments… Personally, seeing my first ever Black-billed Cuckoo in Britain was completely overshadowed by the discovery of an American Golden Plover in the fields surrounding my home and, later on in the autumn, the first Steppe Grey Shrike for Whalsay in the vicinity too. After a few quiet years, Whalsay at least had enjoyed a golden spell.

171021 Steppe Grey Shrike Vevoe Whalsay edit IMG_1620[1] crop tweetsize2018 will doubtless hold a few more surprises – I’ve laid some plans for more overseas orchid-hunting, and will keep you posted as I explore some of the outer fringes of the Western Palearctic region. This blog has been shamefully neglected in recent months, but Twitter remains a good place to see what’s happening – I find it’s a tremendous place to keep abreast of all manner of natural history news around the world. It’d be remiss of me not to thank everyone who’s followed my Twitter account ( @dunnjons ) in the past couple of years since I started tweeting in my own right – thank you all! Stay posted, as there’ll be plenty more news about Orchid Summer and more besides in the coming year.

And for now… wishing you all a happy, peaceful and wildlife-filled new year!



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The UK’s favourite book about nature

watership downI wrote, some time ago, a piece on the subject of books I’d take with me were I stranded on a desert island. Happily, this was a metaphorical encrusoement, so none of my eight choices were forced upon me by circumstance – survival guides had no place on my shortlist.

A project launched a few weeks ago by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) gave me a convenient excuse to look once more at the groaning bookshelves in my study… and bedrooms, lounge and bathroom, as my books are still multiplying and spreading, incrementally, like lichen throughout the house. The Landlines project has set out to find the UK’s favourite book about nature – in the first instance, by inviting public nominations. The deadline for this is November 30th 2017 – there’s an online form for your nomination, and the process is quick, free, and easy to complete.

hollowaySadly, actually choosing one’s favourite book may prove a lot harder… My natural history library alone now stretches into several hundred books and, while some of them are arid reference volumes and easily discounted from my deliberations for all their practical usefulness, many others have a place in my affections for one reason or another. How to winnow my selection down to one, singular choice?

Robert Macfarlane (author of many lovely books including a particular favourite of mine, Holloway) weighed the impact books can have on us in one concise statement: “Books, like landscapes, leave their mark in us.”

Taking this as my starting point, I revisited my bookshelves and picked books that, at various points in my forty something years, had spoken to me and helped shape me as a naturalist. Looking back to my childhood, I was a voracious consumer of books – to the point that, after the bulb had been removed from my bedside light, and my torch confiscated, I contrived to read by the anaemic orange light cast by my bedside clock…

my familyBooks in which animals spoke to one another appealed enormously to me, so Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood was a much-loved favourite. Richard Adams’ Watership Down meanwhile was darker, more robust stuff and, unfortunately for me, tainted at the time by the trauma induced as a five year old being taken to see the animated feature film!

Years later I revisited and loved Watership Down unconditionally, not least for Adams’ startling invocation of spirituality and folklore in an animal context. This, with hindsight, was also an appealing aspect of another late childhood favourite, Duncton Wood by William Horwood. Both are books I’ve returned to in adulthood and enjoyed anew.

One book, above all, inspired me as an adolescent – this was, of course, My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell’s golden account of a childhood turned loose in the Corfu countryside. While it was only later that I, critically, realised that Durrell’s very freedom and location owed itself to a background of relative affluence and privilege compared with most of his peers, at the time I read it (over and over again) I simply enjoyed the notion that a boy could spend his adolescence studying the creatures he found nearby. I wanted to be Gerald Durrell very badly indeed…

TheSnowLeopardIn my twenties, having left home, and burdened with a mortgage, I found myself feeding my natural history book habit in the local library. There were classics to hunt out, three of which make my shortlist for Landlines – Nan Shepherd’s vivid Cairngorm homage, The Living Mountain; Peter Matthiessen’s heartfelt The Snow Leopard, a crystalline exploration of the role the natural world can play in the wake of grief that precedes Helen Macdonald’s visceral H is for Hawk by some four decades; and, of course, The Peregrine by J A Baker.

No shortlist of this kind would be complete without The Peregrine. Like Macdonald, Baker is so connected with the subject of his study that he longs to become one with them, a humanhawk trapped in the leaden, earthly bounds of a humanity he would eschew if only he could. But his prose soars, and is uncompromisingly, prismatically brilliant: “[five thousand dunlin] rained away inland, like a horde of beetles gleamed with golden chitin”.

theperegrineI’m privately convinced The Peregrine will eventually triumph in the Landlines search for the UK’s favourite book about nature. If it does, it’s an eminently deserving winner. It is not, however, where my eventual vote lay…

For that we spool forwards to more contemporary natural history writing that has touched me in one way or another in recent years. For very personal reasons I will always carry a torch for Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles – a wonderful travelogue that I enjoyed immensely, and was a source of inspiration for a lost, dear friend of mine at the time.

I’ve already mentioned  Holloway, by Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards, illustrated by Stanley Dorwood – this slim, hauntingly beautiful volume is the perfect evocation of the sunken lanes and droves in Dorset that I explored on foot when I should have been at school. It is also a tribute to the late Roger Deakin, and it is one of Deakin’s books – his last, before his untimely death – that I turn to repeatedly for its luminous, evocative prose and a love for his subject that shines throughout it like the burr in polished walnut.

wildwoodPerhaps I knew in my heart, all along, that Wildwood would be my nomination for Landlines, as it is a marvellous thing, a journey through trees that spans continents and lives. I now call my home a part of the UK that is largely devoid of trees, and I think that my compulsion to return, again and again, to Wildwood‘s pages may be a manifestation of an inchoate longing for their presence in my life. Books leave their mark in us – but trees root us in our landscape.

I’d urge you to vote for your favourite book about nature before the 30th November deadline – and if you want to follow Landline’s progress, the AHRC has set up a dedicated Twitter account (@LandLinesNature) and hashtag (#favnaturebook). While you’re there, do please follow me too (@dunnjons) as there will be plenty of news unfolding soon about my very own imminent book, Orchid Summer. Watch this space!

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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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An Orchid Odyssey on Rhodes

Orchid Summer cover smallI’ve blogged, back and forth, about my forthcoming orchid book, Orchid Summer, set to be published by Bloomsbury on 19th April 2018. It’s been the most fabulous project to be involved with, from start to finish – the culmination of a dream decades in the making, I’ve enjoyed no end researching, writing and being part of the publication process. I only hope that people enjoy reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed the journey thus far!

King Ferdinands Orchid19th April 2018 seems like a long way away, but it’ll be upon us before we know it – is it just me, or are the weeks and months spooling by quicker than ever? I’ve a lot to look forward to before then, not least a really exciting orchid-hunting trip I’m going on at the start of April.

ophrys-cretica-beloniaeFrom 7th-14th April next year I’ll be co-leading an Orchid Odyssey holiday on the beautiful Greek island of Rhodes for Greenwings Wildlife Holidays. My co-leader, Yiannis Christofides, is a sublime botanist with a particular interest in orchids – he knows Rhodes inside out, so we’re sure to see some really special flowers. In fact, we’ll be hoping to find between 40 and 50 of the island’s native wild orchid species, including a number of endemic and regional specialties. The range and variety of Ophrys orchids alone makes Rhodes an irresistible destination for the orchid hunter…

orchis-anatolicaThrow in beautiful scenery and friendly folk, good food, a lovely sun-drenched climate after a British winter, and the fact that our visit coincides with the emergence of a host of fabulous butterflies and the heart of spring bird migration, and it becomes a truly spectacular proposition. The pace will be laid-back and there’ll be loads of opportunities to get some great photos of these beautiful flowers. I couldn’t be more excited about this trip if I tried!

Praying Mantis & SerapiaAnd it’s all taking place just a week before Orchid Summer is published! This promises to be a month bursting with orchid potential – and you could join us! You can read all about our Rhodes orchid itinerary on the Greenwings website and, to whet your appetite, there are some past Orchid Odyssey trip reports there too.

Hoping I see you in Rhodes next year…

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Northern Marsh Orchid hybrids

140603 Northern Marsh Orchid Yell blogsizeIt may, just, still feel like summer down in mainland Britain at the moment, though the signs of the changing seasons are there, if you look a little closer in the hedgerows – blackberries and sloes are starting to sweetly and sourly tempt. They’re a reminder to me that I should keep an eye open for crowberries here in Shetland – though, as gathering enough of these tiny berries to be useful in the kitchen takes an achingly long time, I should perhaps just leave them for the local birds. Judging by the purple spatters they leave on the windows of my island home, crowberries are a popular seasonal treat for the local Starlings.

The flowering season here is definitely drawing to a close, particularly for my favourites, the orchids. Bog Orchids are the last to flower in Shetland and they’re presently waning while, on the south coast of England, the Autumn Lady’s-tresses are well under way. I’ll soon have a grandstand seat for one of Britain’s great wildlife spectacles – the migration season for birds across the Northern Hemisphere is slowly beginning, and before long Shetland will be inundated with birds from nearby Scandinavia and much, much further afield too – lost birds will make landfall here from Siberia and North America.

IMG_4025 blogsizeAll of this is still to come. There’s a sense of unhappening here, the stretching void before a clock strikes the hour. I’ll be charting the unfolding migration for Rare Bird Alert in the coming weeks but, for now, I have a brief chance to be indulgent and look once more at orchids and, in particular, one of my favourites.

Northern Marsh Orchids (image right & above) are fairly common here in Shetland, and can be found across much of Scotland and northern England too. Being Dactylorhizas, they’re promiscuous and readily hybridise with their near relatives – so I thought now would be an opportunity to bring together in one place a handful of images of the various hybrid combinations I’ve encountered lately.

170701 Gorie orchids HSO x blogsizeTheir hybrid offspring (Dactylorhiza x formosa) with Heath Spotted Orchids (image left) are ubiquitous in Shetland – so commonplace, in fact, that I realise I rarely pause to take a photo of those I find…

NMO x hebridensisWhere they meet Common Spotted Orchids they’ll hybridise just as readily with that species too – though the offspring of this combination (Dactylorhiza x venusta) vary between different areas – those in the Hebrides (image right) being a much more intensely coloured affair, owing I think to the Common Spotted parent belonging to a darker, richly marked local subspecies known as hebridensis. Those hybrids found on the opposite coast of Britain, in the dune slacks of Lindisfarne (image below), have paler though still hardly insipid flowers.

IMG_1397 Lindisfarne blogsizeSo far, so good – much rarer, however, are hybrids with Early Marsh Orchid and Frog Orchid. I found my first example of the former (Dactylorhiza x latirella) here in Shetland earlier in the summer (image below) – an identification I cautiously made for myself at the time, but was pleased recently to receive confirmation from the Botanical Society of Britain Ireland’s (BSBI) orchid referee, Dr Ian Denholm, that I’d got this right.

170611 EMO x NMO D x latirella IMG_8683[1] edit tweetsize cropThe latter hybrid, that of Northern Marsh Orchid paired with Frog Orchid, is at least as rare as the former. Frog Orchids, at first glance, don’t look much like the rest of the Dactylorhiza clan, but in recent years we’ve learned they are, in fact, primitive Dactys after all. We should, perhaps, have suspected as much – for their hybrids with Common Spotted Orchid have been well-known if never common for many years. Encountered even less frequently are their hybrids with Northern Marsh Orchid (X Dactyloglossum viridellum), but last year I found two such hybrids – their flowers elongated and subtly isabelline, betraying the Frog Orchid influence (image below).

IMG_2447 blogsizeFor anyone who’d like to delve a little deeper into the myriad hybrid permutations of Northern Marsh Orchids and their close Dactylorhiza relatives, there’s a handy website* that provides not only a chart of the possibilities, but also links to the BSBI distribution maps for each – a chance, perhaps, in the long months of autumn and winter ahead for the orchid hunter to plan next year’s expeditions.

* though note,  it still refers to Frog Orchid as belonging to Coeloglossum and, hence, its hybrids with Dactylorhiza as inter-generic, hence the awkward Latin name for them. The incorporation of Frog Orchid into the Dactylorhiza is neither universally popular, nor wholly accepted…


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