Orchids underfoot

The orchid I bend down to examine seems to glow with a pure white light, each tiny flower a miniature, ethereal being; something from ancient times long forgotten. And orchids are ancient, with a long evolutionary history. They have become so diverse that they are one of the largest, if not the largest, family of flowering monocot plants. Their flowers are unmistakeable, formed of three petals, one of which is usually modified into a lip, a landing pad for the insects the flower attracts in the hope of pollination. Orchid flowers are often highly complex shapes which, combined with extravagant colours and fragrances, are usually designed to lure specific pollinators to the flower.

We are lucky to have two different species of wild orchid in our wood. They add an exotic look to the woodland floor, something a bit showy and unusual looking. They aren’t predictable though – in the second year of owning the wood, when I found an early purple orchid in the middle of the path, I wondered how we could have missed it before. But it has not come up since. Then last year we found one quite near the original spot. I marked it, so the children wouldn’t stand on it, but this year it seemed to have jumped out of its ring of stones. We’ve slowly realised that these individual orchid plants don’t always come up each year. It is the same with the greater butterfly orchids – the plants that flowered beautifully last year have put up two leaves but no flower this year; we have elegant spires where last year we are pretty sure there were none.

To be honest, it seems amazing they are there at all. Orchids produce hundreds, maybe thousands of seeds in a single fruit, so small that they are like dust. Some can contain as few as ten cells, with no chlorophyll, no roots, no shoots. They cannot be activated until the correct fungi penetrate the seed, providing for it the sugars it needs to develop leaves and roots. An orchid can be below the ground for years, seemingly parasitic on these fungi, until its first photosynthetic leaves develop allowing the plant to generate its own energy using sunlight. No one is sure whether the fungi receives anything in return to make this relationship symbiotic rather than parasitic, but either way, if the fungi is not present, the orchid will not reproduce no matter how many thousands of seeds it produces. It is relationships like this of the orchid and fungi, so incredible and delicate, that illustrate how we can inadvertently do so much damage to a species or environment without realising. If orchids are lost because of habitat destruction, it is not a simple job to replant an area with seeds to ensure their survival. The fungi need to be there too. And the correct food for the fungi. And the right habitat for the fungi’s food…

Our orchids are probably not in ideal conditions; it’s likely they would flower, or indeed appear, more regularly if they were. The early purple is an indicator of ancient woodland, and would probably benefit from more light – the greater butterfly orchid would definitely benefit from the woodland being opened up again, it being suited to a clearer broadleaf habitat. The fact we see this orchid is just another sign that our wood was once far more open than it is now. But we can work on that. Who knows what we will find lurking in the seed bank waiting for the light to come back.

The early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) comes up with the bluebells. It can reach a height of around 40cm, but ours are usually smaller. They have pinkish, purple flowers arranged round a spike, and dark green leaves with dark spots. They are pollinated by bumble bees and other insects attracted by the colour and lovely scent. It is good that these orchids are in with the bluebells however as they give no reward to the insects for their pollination services – the bees will need to visit the bluebells for their nectar. The greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) does provide nectar. Its scent is released mainly in the evening to attract the night flying moths that pollinate it. Standing taller than the early purple, the greater butterfly’s flower spike holds white flowers thought to resemble butterflies with wings held out the sides.

And one last interesting thing about these orchids. Their flowers in bud have the landing platform petal at the top. If you look closely at the stem holding the flower to the stalk, it is always twisted; as they develop, the stem rotates so the flower is flipped through 180 degrees – the flowers are described as resupinate. Somewhere far back in their evolution, these flowers have adapted to insect pollination; a twisted stem gave a plant an advantage, made the flowers more attractive to the insects that could pollinate it, and by chance gave orchids their distinctive flower shape. Orchids are just another example of why I find evolution fascinating, from the shape and form of the flowers to the need for fungi to germinate. And how lucky, to have these amazing plants in our wood. Further reason to conserve the wood for the future…

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