Written by Mike Waller
Continuing with an update on some of this season’s orchid hunts, this post will focus on two of our less colourful species – the Frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride) and the Bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa).
Readers will be unsurprised to hear that, like most species described in the previous post, the Bog and the Frog have declined dramatically across their range over the last century. For the latter, this loss is particularly stark in Wales where only a few remnant populations remain in small patches of suitable pasture. For example, in Ceredigion (Mid Wales), the Frog orchid has dwindled to only one privately owned meadow near Llanfair Clydogau. Unfortunately, over the last two years I have surveyed the site, no plants were found and I suspect the species is now extinct in the county.
Recently however, a sizeable population of Frog orchids has been discovered in a disused limestone quarry in Denbighshire. Naturally I had to make a visit and so in late June I made the arduous journey to North Wales to see what I could find.
Unusually, the Frog orchids I found growing in the quarry were not only huge (>35cm) but they grew in large clumps of up to 8 flowering spikes. Even stranger was the habitat – a hedgerow! Typically Frog orchids favour open calcareous grassland and scrub with plenty of light. We even found some plants growing inside an area of secondary woodland amongst leaf litter. Clearly the Frog orchid has a wider habitat tolerance than previously thought.
Alongside the Frog orchids we came across large numbers of Common Twayblade (Neottia ovata), Common Spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and Chalk Fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea).
During the latter half of July, myself and the other trainees (Katy Potts, Sally Hyslop, Chloe Rose and Anthony Roach) joined lead Orchid Observers scientist Mark Spencer and AMC botanist Fred Rumsey for a couple of days of botanising and collecting on the local wet heaths. With the availability of a willing workforce, Fred took the opportunity to enlist our services to survey one of the few sites for Bog orchid not far from Studland.
The Bog orchid is Britain’s smallest orchid species, usually standing no more than 8cm in height and entirely green making it very hard to find. Sadly, the species has declined by 61% with losses being particularly acute in lowland Britain where it is now only found in the New Forest, Dorset heaths and Cornwall. More recently, the Bog orchid has disappeared from Norfolk – the very last location for the species in the entirety of eastern England.
Previous population counts at our target survey site appeared to be indicating a general decline from hundreds to a mere 18 flowering spikes seen in 2013. As with any localised population, it is vital that repeated surveying takes place in order to track environmental change. Of course, orchids are famously ephemeral in their appearance so flowering numbers are hard to predict.
After reaching the area, using specially drawn maps given to us by the county recorder, Mark and Fred quickly found 5 large plants at the edge of some rush tussocks and as we moved on, we gradually found more and more plants clinging to the mud amongst sundews and bladderworts. Fred methodically recorded each individual plant and its location as we combed the 100m stretch of sopping bog.
By the end of the day, we waited in anticipation for Fred’s final count which stood at a fantastic 102 – far surpassing the previous count and suggesting that a decline was not necessarily occurring here. Let’s hope these fascinating little plants continue to thrive here for many more years to come.
Don’t forget – now is the time to get out and look for our last orchid species of the year – the Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis). Search for this species amongst short turf on limestone, chalk or fixed dunes. They can even be found on lawns and old grass tennis courts!
Written by Mike Waller
The pace of the Orchid Observers project has really accelerated through the summer. Alongside an overwhelming quantity of records, we’ve seen people from all corners of country getting involved. Records from far flung areas like northern Scotland have not been uncommon whilst some species have been recorded in entirely new locations.
But it’s not just the public who’ve been out photographing orchids.
Over the last 12 years, I’ve criss-crossed the country in search of some of our rarest and most enigmatic species. This year has been no different only this time, I’ve been able to use my photographs of the 29 specially selected species to feed directly into the Orchid Observers project.
Working full time here at the Angela Marmont Centre means I have a 2 day per week window through the orchid ‘season’ to catch certain species at the optimum moment and snag the perfect photo. Here I’ll give a brief overview of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen.
The last weekend in May was the first major excursion I made with Saturday devoted to a tour of some ancient limestone grassland and woodland sites around Gloucestershire. It began with a visit to the beautiful Selsley Common where, despite it being quite late in the year, Green Winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) were scattered across the upper slopes, just clinging on in the afternoon heat. Further on I came across my true target – the Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera). I counted around 20 plants on the open download just coming into flower. Their shiny blue speculums, designed to lure male digger wasps, were iridescent against the velvet chocolate surface that makes up the labellum. It was also in this area that I observed my very first Chalk Fragrant orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea) of the year, just beginning to open alongside a few Common Twayblades (Neottia ovata).
The next stop was a short one and only a mile from Selsley. A small lane passing through some ancient Beech woodland where White Helleborines (Cephalanthera damasonium) hide in the gloom, protruding as widely spaced individuals from the crispy leaf litter. The flowers barely open in this species and are mostly self-pollinated.
My final destination was a mysterious and little-known location for the Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata) deep in the heart of Gloucestershire. Despite reports of only 3 plants, I eventually came across several small groups scattered across the rough grassland bringing the total up to 24. Rafts of Early Purple orchids (Orchis mascula) were looking quite tired but a single Greater Butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) was still in tight bud beside the main path.
The Burnt orchid has suffered one of the most catastrophic declines of any orchid in the UK with a 79% loss from its past historical range. The causes for this are complex but primarily stem from agricultural changes. This particular location represents a relic from a time when it was far more widespread.
Then came Sunday and a race up to Sandscale Haws in Cumbria for the diminutive Coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza trifida) with fellow orchid enthusiast, Sean Cole – AKA ‘Mr. Orchid’!
Sandscale Haws is a vast duneland reserve managed by the National Trust with many rare species such as Natterjack toads. This year was, however, shaping up to be a special one for Sandscale. A few days previously, volunteers had recorded the highest number of Coralroot orchids since 1991 – the year I was born! Well over 1000 spikes in just a hand-full of slacks (read more about it here: http://sandscalehaws.blogspot.co.uk/).
The Coralroot orchid is an arctic-montane species that really belongs in the open shrubby tundra and pine woods of Scandinavia. Curiously, it is leafless and relies on parasitising it’s fungal ‘partner’ for nutriment. It is also miniscule and rarely attains a height of more than 15cm which makes it doubly hard to spot amongst the extensive mats of Creeping Willow under which it hides.
Alongside the Coralroots were several Bee orchids (Ophrys apifera) in bud and the odd Early Marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata) just preparing to flower.
Fast forward a month to the last weekend in June. Reports of a newly discovered location for the equally diminutive Lesser Twayblade (Neottia cordata), just inside Herefordshire, prompted a visit. The remote Olchon Valley, running parallel to the Welsh border, was said to be the place and I quickly came across several large plants (>10cm!) nestled amongst the heather on domed platforms of Sphagnum moss. Mom had been dragged along for this day and also helped find several more in the general area.
From there, we struck out across the border into Breconshire to a tiny Wildlife Trust reserve that holds Wales’ last reliable site for the increasingly rare Small White orchid (Pseudorchis albida). Only 2 were seen amongst a thronging mass of other hay meadow flowers. A stunning display of Heath Fragrant orchids (Gymnadenia borealis) and Heath Spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza maculata) was a real treat alongside 6 Greater Butterfly orchids (Platanthera chlorantha).
Being able to observe these stunning little plants out in the wild is always a real privilege. The opportunity to be able to use their phenology as a proxy for climate change research makes finding them just that little bit more exciting. Don’t forget to keep uploading your records to the website!