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!
Happy (calendar) Autumn!
Today’s plant couldn’t be more appropriate – these are Autumn lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis). True to their name, they usually appear when the weather turns more autumnal, and their twirling spiral form apparently reminded their original namer of the ringlets once popular in women’s hairstyles.
Though they like to grow in very short turf, Autumn lady’s-tresses are themselves quite small and, surrounded as these were by other wildflowers, especially the superficially similar Eyebright, they weren’t easy to spot.
Luckily for me, when I was having an early wander around Cosmeston this morning, I bumped into a friend of a friend, who is extremely knowledgeable about the local flora, and he very kindly showed me where these gorgeous little orchids were growing.
Like many brownfield sites, the former limestone quarries at Rhoose Point, the southernmost point in Wales, are now a nature-filled paradise, and yesterday one area was positively teeming with these beautiful Marsh helleborines (Epipactis palustris).
As their name implies, these orchids need water to flourish: the First Nature website says ‘This plant thrives in habitats which are usually submerged with water during the winter and maintain high levels of moisture during the summer. Dune slacks are often home to vast colonies, as are fens which are fed by alkaline springs running through limestone rocks – chalk being the other essential element to enable the Marsh Helleborine to flourish.’
I love what Richard Mabey has to say about orchids in Flora Botannica:
These days [their lightweight seed] often fetches up on artificially open habitats, low in nutrients and free of competition (quarries, for example), which replicate orchid-rich natural habitats such as sand dunes and cliff tops. It is this paradoxical, opportunistic quality of many orchids – the exquisite bloom transforming the spoil tip – that has become the basis for the true modern myth of the family, a botanical version of Beauty and the Beast.
The Marsh helleborines (and the many other species of orchid) that grow so well in the old Rhoose quarries are a stunning example of this transformation.