A Season of Orchids

Its been a fabulous year for wildflowers. There is a rhythm to wildflower watching that moves you from landscape to landscape with the changing flowering seasons. This year there has perhaps been more persistence on my part in chasing the seasons, more adventurousness, and certainly more determination to make the most of what our landscapes have to offer.

Sightings of the orchid family demonstrate these shifts in time and landscape. The early purple orchid pops up in springtime, flowering in drifts along with the yellow of cowslips in the limestone meadows and into the woodland edges of the Derbyshire Dales, and in grassland on the Pembrokeshire coastal cliffs and hills. The Derbyshire Dales also reveal flowerings of meadow saxifrage, and yellow archangel in its woodlands, whereas the Pembrokeshire coastal grassland has sheep's-bit scabious with hares-foot clover and toadflax to come - the coastal cliffs are a tricolour of the red (well, pink) of thrift, the white of sea campion and the blue of squill. The early purple orchid flowers later in the limestone of the Yorkshire Dales, and was approached this year while rising out into the open from walking an ancient woodland. It's flowering was an unexpected profusion, drifting in amongst the delicate, magenta-flowered birds eye primrose, a plant more often associated with the insectivorous
violet-flowered butterwort. The star-fish-like butterwort grows elsewhere from here, with its feet in seepages in limestone, but is just as happy in the acid bogs of the Cheviot Hills.

The twayblade is a new orchid for me this year. It is said to grow on my local moor, but I have never found it there. Instead, we come across it on a visit to a juniper wood on Moughton Fell. Very green, it perhaps lacks the charm of other orchids, but makes up for it with a distinctive pair of very large leaves at its base. The juniper wood is a world of fantasy, if you imagine yourself as only two feet tall. The wind-stunted compact bushes are trees-in-miniature, wonderfully complementing the small valleys, scarps and pavements of this fellscape.

The North-South divide means a difference in climate and temperature and thus flowering season, and so the early sighting of a pyramidal orchid (in a Suffolk wayside) is deferred in this tour until the orchid shows its face again in the North. Instead a return a few weeks on, to the location of the flowering of early purple orchid in Yorkshire, finds it over now, perhaps explaining why it has never been seen in such profusion before. I must have just missed it by days in previous years, when seeking out the rock roses, marjoram and mountain pansies that come into flower after it. The frequent returns of this year have exposed this greater floral abundance, catching it just at the right time, as it has done with the abundance of other favoured locations. Compensation comes for this return by a follow-on flowering of the fragrant orchid, in amongst common meadow-rue, and adding its alluring scent to that of lady's bedstraw and clovers in the nearby meadows of harebell, dropwort and greater burnet.

The heath orchid and common spotted orchid look similar, but I think there is both within walking distance from home, near the border between North and West Yorkshire. The moorland above of millstone grit has its heathland species of heather, bilberry and crowberry (and too much bracken) but becomes vastly more interesting where there is constant moisture. A major seepage sees swathes of pink heath orchid in amongst rushes, ragged robin, greater birds foot trefoil and water mint. Higher up, where mosses have moved in, the thrilling insectivorous sundew thrives along with cranberry, cotton grass and swathes of orange flowered bog asphodel. We find the common spotted orchid in the moist and not so moist parts of an unimproved field below a wooded glen to the edge of the moor. In the moist areas, it grows with ragged robin and water mint; and in the drier areas, it flowers before the hardhead, devil's-bit scabious and betony appear.

The marsh orchid really likes its feet wet, its deep purple flowers nestling amongst marsh marigold, brooklime, water mint and monkey flower in the marshy-ness beside a gill above Cray in Wharfedale. The marsh helliborine also likes its feet wet, but this orchid is found in profusion in the moistness of the dune slacks just over the causeway to Holy Island in Northumberland. These dune slacks are a marvel: nestling within parched sand dunes, they harbour other moisture lovers such as creeping willow, marsh gentian, bog pimpernel and lesser centaury. The crack-dry coastal dunes of Northumberland have an orchid of their own, and it is now that the pyramidal orchid makes it appearance. This domed, conical-shaped orchid runs through the dunes, providing a stunning understorey to the marram grass, as does its companions of blood-red cranesbill, lesser meadow rue and hound's-tongue.

The orchid family colonises almost all temperate habitats except darkest woodland, and that is why it was chosen as the key flower to be the guide on this floral tour. I have seen orchids in all those varied habitats, along with other wildflowers around them that are also characteristic of the habitats that have been encountered. New locations such as the ancient woodland, or old locations visited at different times of the year, have brought new wildflowers or old friends that I did not know to be there. I am beginning to feel the thrill that I get in the North American wildlands with its greater intrinsic abundance of wildflowers and the absence of a farming  influence.

There is a parallel here for us all to see - the dunes, coastal cliffs, wetlands and ancient woodlands are free of a farming influence and repay with their floral excellence. The managed meadow and arable field wildflowers are an unstable, unsupportable abundance by comparison. However, it is they that gain much of the national attention because of their proportionately larger presence, and because of the conventional fear of a loss of this farmland to other habitats. We should not fear this, nor the consequent loss of this unstable abundance. The lesson of the orchid, a charismatic flower if ever there was one, is that we do not need to fear a re-apportionment (return) of land into other habitats. There is always an orchid - and other wildflowers too - that will grow there.

Mark Fisher, 10 August 2004

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk