Species of the Month – Orchids
Suggestive of the beautiful, mysterious and exotic, the Orchidaceae family contains at least 26,000 species worldwide. In Britain and Ireland there are 56 species of native wild orchid ranging from the frequently seen Common Spotted and Early Purple Orchids to the lovely Green-winged (known as Bleeding Willow in Bucks) and the curious, almost otherworldly Bird’s-nest and on to the magical Ghost Orchid – probably the hardest plant to find growing wild in Britain.
Mid-May through to early July is a great time to head out into our local grasslands and woods to discover a whole range of these enchanting, extraordinary plants such as the Bee Orchid, wonderfully odd with the appearance of perching bumblebees catching the rays of the sun; or the elusive Fly Orchid, hiding in the shade of woodland edges, with flowers looking like shiny, metallic bluebottles resting on the stalk. Pyramidal Orchids occur in many shades of pink and have a liking for both older, managed grassland. You may catch the smell of the sweetly-orange scented Fragrant Orchid or come across the Common Twayblade with long stems bearing spikes of yellow-green flowers.
There are Orchids with a special connection to the Chilterns. The once common Military Orchid seemed to be extinct by the time of the First World War and the search for these lost ‘soldiers’ became an obsession for English Orchid hunters. The writer Jocelyn Brooke wrote about this quest (and his love of home-made fireworks) in his hugely entertaining autobiography ‘The Military Orchid’. The botanist J.E. Lousley eventually found a colony in 1947 and it was only in the 1960s that the colony (or possibly a different one) was rediscovered at Homefield Wood near Marlow, a find made public in 1975. The soldiers had come home.
Appearing like a strange, wandering phantom of the woods, the Ghost Orchid is one of our most mysterious plants. Restricted to a handful of sites in the Welsh Borders and the Chilterns it was last recorded in Herefordshire in 2009, the previous recorded sighting being in Buckinghamshire in 1987: it had been declared extinct in 2005. First discovered in England in 1854 it was only seen 11 times in the next century – with no green leaves, living largely underground and flowering only under perfect conditions it is the ‘Holy Grail’ of botanising. The brilliant Ghost Orchid Project looks for intrepid volunteers to continue the search.
Orchids can be locally common in this area as a high proportion favour soils rich in calcium and low in nutrients. As colonisation takes place very slowly, often over hundreds of years for some species they do better in older habitats that are not regularly greatly disturbed – this being said, it is apparent that many species are found in areas of historical disturbance (such as old chalk pits). Some species can be opportunistic, possessing huge quantities of lightweight wind-blown seed they can end up establishing on marginal spaces such as rubbish tips, motorway verges, abandoned airfields or factories and, wonderfully, in garden lawns if left unmown. Grazing and traditional grassland management are also important factors in providing suitable habitats. Well-managed (particularly Ancient) woodland allows for the flourishing of characteristic species such as Common Twayblade, Fly, Greater Butterfly and Lady Orchids. The rare Red Helleborine and Ghost Orchid are found (!) only in deciduous woodland.
The roots are full of a nutritious starch-like substance which has for centuries (particularly in the Middle East but also North Africa, central and southern Europe and the Balkans) been extracted to make a drink known as sahlep or sahlab, corrupted in English to salep or saloop, usually made from the Green-winged Orchid but also the Early Purple and Early Marsh Orchids. Although most of the tubers were imported the best English Salep came from Oxfordshire made with local dogstones. As well as being highly nutritious the drink is used as a demulcent to sooth irritation and pain.
The family derives its name from the Greek orchis (testicle) – a reference to the appearance of the underground tubers and Orchids have long been associated with aphrodisiac food and medicine. Culpeper thought of them as being ‘under the dominion of Venus’ and a sixteenth century English herbal provides a recipe for the ‘water of Satyrion’ which ‘causeth great hete’. The 1st Century Greek physician Dioscorides wrote of the kunosorchis ‘Dog’s Stone’ and of the saturion, the Satyr plant, named after the divinities of the woods who were prone to lively behaviour. Orchis was the son of a Satyr and a Nymph, killed for getting a little unruly at a party and accosting a Priestess of Bacchus. He was torn apart by the other guests and the Gods then turned the remains of his body into Orchids.