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In praise of wild orchids

Orchids are amongst the rarest of our native wildflowers. There are over 50 different species of wild orchid in Britain. Read our article to find out more about these fascinating plants.

Beautiful and intriguing, British wild orchids are our rarest wildflowers. Changes in farming techniques over the past 70 years has led to habitat loss which is a major factor in the declining numbers of these fascinating plants; 97% of UK meadowland has been lost since the second world war. Some species are now confined to isolated sites and are heavily protected. The Victorian obsession with orchids – known as orchidelirium – led to the hunting of wild British orchids.

The lady’s-slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) was declared extinct in 1917 before being rediscovered in 1930 with its location being revealed to only a handful of botanists. A special committee was established to help ensure the orchid’s survival and plants are guarded round the clock. When the lady’s-slipper orchid was taken to Chelsea ten years ago, the plant was given its own security protection.

Here in the Midlands we are blessed by being surprisingly close to colonies of orchids. Cycling is one of the best ways to experience the joy of an unexpected orchid encounter. The verge from The Fox to the Bridgnorth Garden Centre contains orchids, and Darby Lane in Shropshire which runs from Wall Under Heywood to Eaton Manor also contains numerous pyramid orchids in its verges.

The easiest place to see orchids locally is Wenlock Edge; the best time to look is late May - July. The Edge once lay under a warm tropical sea and its thin, calcareous soil formed from the shells of sea creatures gives good growing conditions for orchids. Orchids on the Edge include southern marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza praetermissa), pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis), common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsia) and bee orchids (Ophrys apifera).

The bee orchid is a stunning example of nature’s attempt at mimicry: the flower’s lower lip looks like a female bee and is intended to attract male bees which will then pollinate the plant. Unfortunately, the correct bee variety does not exist in the UK and the orchid is self-pollinated within these shores.

Orchid seed is like dust and is dispersed on the wind. The seeds are unable to develop without help from mycorrhizal fungi which work symbiotically with the seedling to provide food and water. The fascinating process of this mutually beneficial relationship is described on the British orchids website where the process of raising orchids under laboratory conditions is explained.

Removing orchids from the wild is illegal.

There are easy to grow garden varieties which are readily available. The hyacinth orchid (Bletilla striata) is available from Crocus Plants and will establish readily in damp garden conditions. Pleione formosa is another easy to grow variety - there are some stunning images plus cultivation tips via this link to Aberglasney Gardens.

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