early purple orchid

Orchid hunting, part 3: Park Gate Down

We left Yocklett’s Bank and the Fly Orchids and cruised through the countryside, which was fluffy and white with cow parsley and new lambs. Our destination, Park Gate Down, lay deep in the North Downs of Kent, accessed by single-track roads so narrow our small car passed through with centimeters to spare.

Park Gate Down is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (or ‘TripleSI’ as I learned to call them at the Botanics). It is mostly chalk grassland and is famous among botanists for being home to 14 British native orchid species. We parked the car and walked into a beautiful valley, hazy in the spring sunshine.

We’d come to Park Gate Down seeking the Monkey Orchid (Ochis simia). This site is one of only three in the U.K. where this truly rare orchid grows.

As we passed through a series of fields there were lots of cowslips (Primula veris) but no Monkey Orchids to be seen. We did, however, see the lovely native columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, our first sighting of this plant in the wild. There were a few fellow orchid-spotters about, and we passed a man leaving the valley with a large camera swung over his shoulder. We asked him if he’d had any luck finding Monkeys and he said they were just coming into bloom. He’d found one but it was a real challenge given the size of the site.

As we continued up the valley we did see some orchids, including Fly Orchids, an unopened Butterfly Orchid, below, and lots of Early Purple Orchids which are challenging to differentiate from Monkeys at a glance. We were in a series of three huge fields, and our hopes at locating a flower of just a few centimeters tall amongst the grass and hillocks were growing dim.

And then as we were heading out of the valley I stepped over a tussock of grass and almost landed on our prize: a Monkey Orchid right at my feet! I shouted to my husband who came bounding over, ecstatic. And there it was, this little plant no taller than a cowslip, our first Monkey Orchid.

You can see how the Monkey Orchid gets its name, with its “tail” hanging between its “legs.” It was just starting to come into bloom.

We spent a long time lying on the grass admiring our Monkey and marveling at our luck to have found it in such a huge space. It was truly a thrill of discovery that I can only imagine we’ve shared with centuries of plant hunters throughout time. Of course, the plant hunters of old would have picked or dug up their finds for transport back to their sponsors, but all we wanted to do was tread lightly on the earth and admire.

Our day of orchid hunting in the North Downs was the best day we’ve had living in southeast England and one we will not forget. Next year we look forward to discovering some of the later-flowering orchids and exploring the botany of a new area of the country.

Orchid season begins

A few days into May my husband and I took one of our usual evening walks around the fields and woodlands near our home. We were headed to check a sunny bank that last year had a nice population of early purple orchids, Orchis mascula.

Well, the usual site had a good few flower spikes, but when we ventured off our track a bit we found the motherlode:

It is hard to put into words our excitement at this scene. Wild British orchid have always captivated me with their strange and complex beauty, ephemeral nature, choosiness of their growing sites, and in some cases, their rarity. I am not alone in my admiration—in the last few years several popular books have been written about the quest to see British orchids growing in the wild.

This particular site, photographed on May 3, is a west-facing grassy bank growing between an old coppice woodland and a newly planted woodland site. The bluebells were just wrapping up their show, and could still be seen among the orchids. The dogs mercury, Mercurialis perennis, along with the orchids, told me the site had been undisturbed for some time. Also growing with the orchids were brambles and foxgloves.

We spent a long time sitting amongst the orchids, just enjoying their beauty as the sun set. I wanted to wait until the sun popped below a thick bank of clouds, hoping it would illuminate the orchids for a sunny shot. Thankfully I married a patient man who loves few things more than spending the evening with me in a field of beautiful and unusual native plants. Orchid season has begun.