Perhaps O should really be for obsession, as it seems I have a bit of an obsession for orchids: they have featured in no fewer than nine blog posts this year. Early-purple orchids were the first to flower back in May, followed soon afterwards by the Common spotted-orchids, which also featured in a second post in late June about the variation in their colours and markings. Also in June, the Bee orchids showed their jolly faces, and I tried to get to grip with identifying Southern marsh-orchids. In July, more orchid species that like damp places were in the spotlight, first the Heath spotted-orchids of Aberbargoed, followed soon after by Rhoose Quarry’s magnificent Marsh helleborines. The late-summer-blooming Broad-leaved helleborines featured on the first day of August, and the first days of autumn were brightened by the sight of spiralling Autumn lady’s-tresses. What a feast for the senses these flowers are!
A botanical treat I look forward to at this time of year is the final show of native orchids for the year, the delicately formed and perfectly named Autumn lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis).
When I first started visiting Cosmeston Lakes Country Park only one small clump of these little beauties was known but a couple of years ago another much large colony was discovered. I didn’t do an exact count but there were easily 30 stems, many not yet open, and probably more obscured by the other wildflowers.
They grow perilously close to a children’s playground area and are in constant danger of being trampled so let’s hope they survive to bloom another year.
As their current conservation status in Britain is rated amber, meaning they are vulnerable and near-threatened, I feel privileged to have within easy travelling distance a large colony of Marsh helleborines (Epipactis palustris).
And, as our rainfall levels in Wales during May were the highest recorded since records began in 1862, this has been a very good year for a plant that thrives in the wet – hence, the ‘Marsh’ in its name.
These are low-growing orchids, no more than a foot in height, but it is well worth getting down to their level to appreciate more fully the elegant and delicate beauty of their flowers. To my fanciful eye, they sometimes resemble a woman dancing, her frilly white petticoats swirling about her. At other times, I see a white blouse, with an extravagant ruffle down the front, like the jabot worn by some judges. What do you see?
From the often-boggy, mostly acid grasslands at Aberbargoed direct to your screens, this week’s native British orchid is the appropriately named Heath spotted-orchid (remember, the spotted part of that name refers to the marks on its leaves, not its petals). Its scientific name is Dactylorhiza maculata, which the Plantlife website explains as follows: ‘The genus name Dactylorhiza is formed from the Greek words daktylos meaning finger and rhiza meaning root’ – so, this orchid has a multi-fingered root, rather than a single tuber. And maculata means spotted – those leaves.
As you can see from the flower spikes below, this is another orchid with some variation in both its colours, which range from white through pink to pale purple, and its markings, which, though they look spotted from a distance, actually have various combinations of streaks and little loops. The shape of the petals is also distinctive, the lower one in particular is less deeply lobed than, for example, the Common spotted-orchid, which the Heath spotted does superficially resemble.
Mostly, I only see four species of orchid: Early purple, Common spotted, Bee and Pyramidal, so I find it tricky identifying other species. And the fact that many species of orchid hybridise with each other also complicates the identification picture. So, when a Twitter pal tagged me for help identifying a Southern marsh-orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa) I couldn’t assist, but decided to try to find some for myself to learn more about their appearance. I found one specimen during a recent visit to Aberbargoed (though not at the grasslands) and several at Cardiff’s Grangemoor Park.
The first thing I realised is that you can’t rely on colour. I found another orchid that looked the perfect shade of purple but didn’t have the right markings – perhaps a hybrid of Southern marsh and Common spotted. The two key things for Southern marsh-orchids, it seems to me, in non-botanist speak, are that the upper petals all reach skywards, like a person holding their arms in the air, and that the larger, lower petal has two cascades of spots that sometimes merge in to one but always fall in the centre of the petal, not spreading outwards. I’m sure there’s a more succinct way to phrase that but I think it’s best we each have our own ways to remember key points.
If you live in or around or anywhere near Cardiff and you like orchids, then get yourself down to Ferry Road in Cardiff Bay, because there is a Bee orchid fiesta happening right now, and probably for the next few weeks.
It’s completely free. All you have to do is walk along the pavement on the west side of the road adjacent to the Cardiff Bay Retail Centre and look at the verge, because the good folks who manage the Retail Centre agreed to stop mowing said verge this spring, and the result is an explosion of Bee orchids.
I kid you not! One of the council’s community rangers did a count yesterday and reckons there are over 800 spikes, many of which are not yet in bloom. It is seriously amazing, and just shows what botanic marvels are in our road verges if the councils and corporations would just let them grow.
The 2021 orchid season has begun!
In my local area, the first orchids to bloom are the Early-purples (Orchis mascula) and this week I was delighted to find them in two local areas, one a nature reserve, the other a woodland I regularly visit.
The Plantlife website notes that there is a legend the ‘Early Purple Orchid grew under Christ’s cross, and the leaves were splattered with the blood of Christ, have resulted in the names Gethesmane and cross flower.’
The website also lists some of this orchid’s other vernacular names: ‘adder’s meat, bloody butchers, red butchers, goosey ganders, kecklegs, kettle cases and kite’s legs’. Personally, I just call them beautiful!
It’s two and a half weeks yet till the calendar tells us it’s autumn, and we’re all melting in the heatwave that currently has much of Britain in its fiery grip, yet the Autumn lady’s-tresses are in full flower. These gorgeous orchids are tiny and not easily spotted amongst long grass and wildflowers but, luckily, I saw a report of a find of over 40 plants in a new-to-me location and went for a look early yesterday morning. Success!
During my lockdown meanders around Cardiff’s Grangemoor Park, I’ve been keeping an eye on these Broad-leaved helleborines, watching and waiting for them to bloom. Though I’d only found them in one location in previous years, this year I’ve spotted them in three different places around the park.
Here they are on 17 June, looking healthy, with lots of lush foliage.
Just over a week later, on 25 June, flower spikes have developed well on a couple of plants, so I’m hopeful of a good display.
I don’t manage to get back this way until 11 July, but I’m full of expectation of a mass of blooms. Unfortunately, though we’ve had plenty of rain, a couple of plants look brown and slightly withered (as they’re adjacent to a well-used footpath, I wonder if passing dogs might have urinated on them). A couple of other plants look as if they’ve been trampled.
Luckily, I have found two plants with spikes intact and a couple of flowers open on each. Such pretty little things.