native

Orchid hunting, part 2: Yockletts Bank

We reluctantly left Denge Wood and drove a few miles to Yockletts Bank. We turned up a lane that was, to me, the most perfect representation of a British woodland in spring. Bear’s garlic, Allium ursinum, carpeted the forest floor. Also known as ramsons, this was the plant we’d enjoyed with nettles a few weeks earlier in a spring tonic soup.

We headed into the woodland and met a nice stand of lady orchids, Orchis purpurea, in a clearing. But what we were after was much more subtle and hard to spot: the fly orchid, Ophrys insectifera.

And find it we did. There’s an orchid in the photo below. Can you spot it? This photo gives you an idea of just how small and challenging these particular orchids can be to see.

Elated with our discovery we continued on through the woods to find these intriguing trees. I dubbed them ‘resurrection ashes’ because new trees had grown vertically from where an old tree had fallen. If there ever is an actual incarnation of immortality, these trees may be it.

Further down the path we noticed a few tell-tale twigs just to the side of the path. We had both read Leif Bersweden’s recent book, The Orchid Hunter, and remembered that people will often use twigs to subtly mark/protect orchids. These twigs were guarding another small population of fly orchids.

We headed out of the wood and back to the car, enjoying the wonderful natural plant combinations growing on the verge. This mix of Allium ursinum; cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, the fern, Asplenium scolopendirum; and the delicate grass, Melica uniflora, was a study in perfect plant combinations. I went to the Chelsea Flower Show a few days later and saw few plant combinations to rival what nature created right here on Yockletts Bank.

Up next, our final stop on our day of orchid hunting, and an excellent stop it was.

Orchid hunting, part 1: Denge Wood and Bonsai Bank

Southeast England, and in particular Kent, is known to have strong orchid populations including some species that are rare in Britain. And so it was in the spirit of great plant hunters’ past that my husband and I set out for a day of orchid hunting on May 18. Unlike the collectors who walked before us, our aim was to only botanize and take a few photos, not entire plants. The practice of plant collection can, and historically has, massively damaged native plant populations and their ability to reproduce and survive. As conservation-minded and responsible horticulturists uprooting or picking plants would be the last thing we would do. It is enough to just see these beautiful plants growing wild.

Our first stop was Denge Wood, an ancient semi-natural woodland on the North Downs. We began our walk through a stunning beech forest that was doing just what makes me love beech woodlands so much, creating a dynamic interplay of light and shadow on fresh, new spring leaves. Nothing else approaches the feeling of being in a living cathedral like a beech woodland. The bluebells were just going over but I could tell they had been a stunning carpet below the green canopy.

As we continued walking the forest opened up to include other tree species, including conifers and birch, and more grassland. It was then that we found what we were after: our first Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea, growing tucked up right next to a yew. It was huge, with a raceme that was about eight inches long. You can see how the orchid gets its name—look for the lady in her dark bonnet and fluffy skirts.

As we continued along the track we met an older man walking the unlikely combination of an Afghan hound and a miniature poodle. We stopped to chat and as he’d visited the site for years he filled us in on all the orchids in the area and what we could expect to see. Once he learned we were botanists he fed us all sorts of intel about orchiding in Kent. Then he motioned us toward Bonsai Bank, where our horticultural lives changed forever.

The open forest/scrubland was full of Lady Orchids as far as the eye could see. In addition to Lady Orchids we saw many Common Twayblades, Neottia ovata, which are easily overlooked because they are the exact color of the surrounding grass. Once you “get your eye in,” they are easy to spot by their relatively large and rounded leaves.

While I was photographing the orchids I heard a rustling nearby and just caught this grass snake navigating under a thick layer of moss. In the almost five years I have lived in Britain I have seen only two snakes, both tiny and inconspicuous, as well as one slow worm (a legless lizard). Coming from a land where snakes are usually much larger, sometimes venomous, and have a penchant for living around human dwellings I admit the relatively smaller size and harmlessness of British snakes is one of the things I love about living here.

We continued on walking amongst the orchids, enjoying a display that had us both in awe. I really enjoyed seeing the variation in the Lady Orchids. Some were almost white and others deep purple. They were so thick it was hard to photograph them for fear of treading on others, or the later-flowering species yet to come.

There were a few other orchid enthusiasts on the bank, mostly men with great big camera gear, but it was quiet enough that we could easily be alone with the orchids. A very common plant in this area is a native British dogwood, Cornus sanguinea, growing at the base of the Lady Orchid below.

The man we met on the path had told us that a White Helleborine, Cephalanthera damasonium, had been spotted in this general area but was hard to find. And wouldn’t you know it, I found two while wandering alone down a path. They were growing right next to a Lady Orchid and a Common Twayblade, with other, later orchid species waiting to flower. Three orchid species in one photo is a pretty great find. Can you spot the White Helleborine and Common Twayblade, below?

We brought along a text we spent a lot of time with while studying botany at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh: The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose. It takes a bit of practice to learn to use a floral key, as well as a good understanding of plant anatomy in order to differentiate your sepals from your stipules. But with time it is an excellent way to correctly identify specimens. Here we’re working on IDing this yet-unflowered orchid.

We had a few more stops planned on our great orchid-hunting day, so with reluctance we left Bonsai Bank and hiked back out through the magical beech woodland.

In Part 2, we continue our day of orchid hunting in Kent with some new discoveries and a woodland so beautiful it put everything at Chelsea to shame.

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.

Early purple, spotted

I was walking near my house tonight when I spotted my first native British orchid of the season: an early purple (Orchis mascula). It was growing in a small patch of woodland between two farm fields, right beside a public right of way. This orchid was a welcome distraction from faceplanting in a sodden field not two minutes before, my boots stuck six inches in mud and impossible to extract without sacrificing my dignity and clean clothing.  

Further up the path I spotted another of springtime's pleasures: lambs. There's nothing quite like standing in a (still muddy) field for the better part of an hour watching these little creatures kick their heels up and jump about, playing on hillocks and downed trees. From where I live the sound of ewes calling to their lambs is a constant background noise that punctuates the spring songbird chorus. 

All may look well, but this harsh and prolonged winter has really taken its toll and these lambs are lucky to still be frolicking. A local nursery man speaking at the Great Dixter spring plant fair last weekend said the weather we've just come through was a once-in-a-lifetime event for this area of England, and some experts I follow say the season is running up to four weeks behind usual. I am facing a lot of plant damage in the garden where I work, and it will require patience in order to assess its extent in the next few weeks and then possible removal and replacement of large, established plants. 

Damage to ornamental gardens is one thing, but more importantly the British food supply and the livelihoods of farmers will take a big hit. This article explains more of what we should expect in the months to come. For now, though, its definitely a watch and wait situation as spring tries its best to shake off winter. Thank goodness there are orchids and lambs to distract us in the meantime. 

Pathside weeds

I've never lived anywhere with such an abundance of native wildflowers as Scotland, where many are considered "weeds." Everything seems to be in bloom right now, and I picked this little bouquet in just a few moments while walking along the Union Canal. Lots of British natives in here, with a few naturalized introductions.

Pretty gorgeous for a bunch of "weeds."

Flora of Rosslyn Chapel and Roslin Glen

Yesterday I had a lovely day out that began with a visit to Rosslyn Chapel, a 15th century private chapel in Roslin, Midlothian.

In addition to it's fame from the DaVinci Code books and movie, the chapel is known for its intricate sandstone carvings. Every bit of the chapel, inside and out, is covered in detailed and imaginative sculpture depicting people and scenes from Celtic and Christian theology and the family history of the chapel's owners and craftsmen. But of most interest to me were the floral carvings, which were of a quantity and level of detail that I've not yet encountered. No photos were allowed inside, but there was still plenty to see on the chapel's exterior.

According to the interpretation, the carvers were inspired by the plants in nearby Roslin Glen. The carvings on the Victorian-era baptistry and organ loft include grape vines, roses, wood sorrel, ivy, daisies, and morning glories.

My favorite might have been this on the older part of the chapel: a hand holding a bunch of flowers.

Before the dreaded "chapel neck" could set in, my date and I left and set off outside the chapel on a hike down to Roslin Glen. The wildflowers were in full bloom, making for very pretty pictures and a chance to do a bit of mid-summer botanizing.

Native British orchid, still working on the I.D. but thinking Dactylorhiza fuchsii. Or maybe Dactylorhiza maculata or perhaps even a hybrid.

Mimulus guttatus, or monkeyflower, an alien invasive.

We ended our ramble near these beautiful young cows. The sun was doing magical things on the Pentland Hills, and a stunning evening drive took us to our well-deserved and delicious pub dinner at the Sun Inn in Dalkieth. Good company, a bit of art and history, some hiking, plants and nature capped off by great food made for a perfect day.