On the first calendar day of autumn it seems entirely appropriate to showcase Britain’s tiny autumnal orchid with the perfectly suited name of Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis).
Growing up to 20cms (7.8ins) tall but often much smaller, these little beauties can be hard to spot – last week I couldn’t find them at Cosmeston (a friend spotted the first-ever sighting of them there recently) though I managed to spot these at Aberthaw Nature Reserve last Sunday. They are mostly coastal plants because they prefer sandy dunes or calcareous grasslands. In a good year, they can grow in colonies of hundreds, as thickly as grass, often in seaside suburban lawns.
It’s easy to see where the epithet spiralis comes from: the flowers spiral around the stem as they grow, though you might not guess these were orchids at all until you took a close look at the flowers. Their orchid shape is distinctive but the hairiness of the pure white petals seems a little incongruous. I presume the common name of Lady’s tresses comes from a resemblance to spiralling ringlets.