On the hunt for orchids

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Orchids capture the popular imagination to a far greater extent than any other group of plants. Indeed, birders, entomologists, mammal-watchers – those who would never, under normal circumstances, label themselves a botanist – often find themselves weak and the knees and enraptured by their blooms. Perhaps this is due to visual appeal – orchids are undeniably striking – or perhaps this is due to rarity. Many orchids, after all, require a certain degree of ‘seeking out’ due to their incredibly particular habitat preferences and constrained distributions. Who knows; although I confess, I too am guilty of holding these plants in high regard.

In my free moments over the past fortnight, I opted to set out in search of the orchid species to be found in my local area: both abundant and altogether more scarce. A mini-expedition, of sorts, intended to provide some much needed wild respite and get me looking downward, instead of up for a change.

First on the agenda was the Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera), that family insect-mimicking of base-rich soils, so named due to flowers bee-shaped lip. The aim of the plant’s mimicry being to attract passing male bees and tempt them to mate, thus pollinating the flower in the process. It is worth noting that Bee Orchids in the UK self pollinate, so this deception boasts little practical application on our shores; although it does provide a draw to the would-be orchid watcher.

Prowling the expanses of a reclaimed spoil heap in urban North Tyneside, it wasn’t long until I stumbled across my first orchid. It’s flower spike standing tall amid atop a matt of Creeping Cinquefoil – easily seen and altogether conspicuous. With further scrutiny, another 23 spikes were observed making for a fine start to proceedings.

Moving on the coast a few days later, I was keen to catch up with another insect-namesake. Albeit an altogether scarcer species which, until now, I had not been lucky enough to observe in the wild. Making a bee-line for Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s fabulous East Chevington reserve, it wasn’t long before I was face-to-flower with a number of altogether less garish Lesser Butterfly Orchids (Platanthera bifolia). During my stay, I counted a healthy number of the delicate, ivory-hued flowerheads – not bad given the precarious state of this threatened species in the wider countryside.

Also at Chevingtin, vast numbers of Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) were noted, ranging in colour from pristine white to deep purple. Here too, a number of altogether less striking Common Twayblade (Listera ovata) were observed. A green orchid amid a sea of green grasses, hardly awe-inspiring. Instead, the most interesting thing about these plants was their foliage – plump, succulent leaves forming almost a cradle from which the spikes emerged. Quite similar to the ornamental Phalaenopsis orchids many of us possess at home.

Last but not least and a further two orchid species were observed inadvertently on recent outings. The first, Heath Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) growing in abundance across a lovely area of heath on Anglesey, enjoyed during a failed hunt for Marsh Fritillary, no less. Closer to home, and an avian-fueled ramble around Rising Sun Country Park in North Tyneside came up trumps with a number of deep purple Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella). Their chubby, rounded flower-stems standing in stark contrast to the greens and yellows that surrounded them.

I hope to hunt out a few more arguably more impressive orchid species in my local area over the coming weeks.

Heath Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) and Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella)