Chasing Urban Orchids

Few wildflowers capture the imagination quite like our orchids. They’re beautiful, of course, but also sufficiently scarce to provide a little jolt of excitement whenever you happen across one. They are also the only group of plants – to the best of my knowledge – that manages to unite all natural history enthusiasts, whether they be birders, lepidopterists, mammal-watchers or anyone else, under a single banner of botanical appreciation.

I stumbled across my first urban orchid of the year a fortnight past in my local park – a towering and luscious Northern Marsh Orchid rising skywards from the rough grass that adorns the peripheries of my local pond. Inspired, for the past fortnight, I have set about checking the various local sites to which I make annual pilgrimages in search of these vibrant little flowers.

First up, a trip in search of what is usually the most abundant species around me during mid-June: the Common Spotted Orchid. Well, this year, they appear far from common, with only a handful observed at a regular site and none at all at another. Perhaps they have been delayed somewhat by the unseasonably dry spring we have endured? Regardless of the reasons behind their reduced numbers, those we did see looked wonderful, their pointy, lilac flowerheads adding a welcome splash of colour among the alternating greens of the Juncus.

Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)

If Common Spotted Orchids appear scarce this year, Northern Marsh Orchid appears to be doing rather well. Following the initial sighting in the local park, I have encountered these much sturdier-looking orchids at three sites this week, and in good numbers. Many appear stunted and small compared with the towering spikes familiar from previous years but all maintain their lurid, purple appeal.

Northern Marsh Orchids may seem uniformly ‘purple’ from a distance but, looking closer, the repeated pattern of deep purple ribbons sat atop a violet backdrop makes for quite the beautiful sight.

Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella)

I have written before about my fondest for Bee Orchids, perhaps one of our most iconic and sought after native wildflowers. Keen to seek out this year’s fix, this week I set off to a favourite local haunt where, in 2019, upwards of sixty stalks of this much-celebrated bloom were observed. A familiar trip which, unusually, ended in disappointment.

Three visits to Silverlink Biodiversity Park over recent days failed to yield a single orchid across what is usually a fairly productive area of flower-rich grassland. Despite the recent rains, the ground here remained baked dry and I couldn’t find a single leaf, never mind a flower.  Here, even the abundant Birds’-foot Trefoil seem suppressed and stunted due to the reason drought and, in the closing minutes of our third trip, we eventually gave up hope.

It was only when my partner decided to look once again at the margins of one of the nearby ponds did our luck change. Here, among the marsh orchids more characteristic of such damp places, two bee orchids stood proud, determined to buck the wider trend on site.

Bee Orchids need little exposition: they’re sublime, intricate and a little intoxicating, the very reason so many seek them out each year. Savouring the sight of the two pioneering blooms, I was simply happy to have enjoyed them for another season.

Hopefully, next year, Bee Orchids will once again rise en masse across this one small meadow. We’ll see…

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)

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