A Most Peculiar Plant – or is it a plant at all?

There are some plants which when we encounter them in gardens we kindly describe as “interesting”. This immediately dispels any thoughts that they might be considered pretty or beautiful but yet we have to admit that there is something about them which is intriguing, beguiling and even wonderful. It must be the case or why otherwise would we give them garden space?

Today I had an encounter with such a plant in the wild and it was a wonderful, fascinating and completely endearing encounter. The Bird’s Nest Orchid (Neottia nidusavis)  is one of our more rare orchids so it was a huge thrill to have been directed today to a large colony.

Neottia nidus-avis Bird's Nest Orchid (29)
With no leaves, the bird’s nest orchid is incapable of producing chlorophyll
Neottia nidus-avis Bird's Nest Orchid (32)
The flowering stems emerge from the underground plant

 

Brendan Sayers, in his “Ireland’s Wild Orchids – A Field Guide” describes it thus: “The bird’s nest orchid is the only Irish orchid which does not possess chlorophyll and therefore has not green parts. The plant relies for all of its life on an association with a microscopic fungus which feeds the plant.” With no leaves, it is a strange-looking thing indeed and we might well wonder if it is a plant at all but rather more fungus. Underground fungus have an association with nearby trees – in today’s case it was an oak – which supply it with sugars while using the fungus to supply minerals. The bird’s nest orchid’s life is, in the main, underground where it also benefits from an association with this same fungus. What we see above ground is simply the flowering spike while the body of the plant is below – and, apparently, the roots are in the shape of a bird’s nest, hence the name! I haven’t been digging other than in books to find this nugget of information.

Neottia nidus-avis Bird's Nest Orchid (66)
The flowers develop

Neottia nidus-avis Bird's Nest Orchid (13)

Given the plant’s very particular needs and dependence on other organisms for life it is no surprise that it is uncommon. When it is found it is always in woodland – well, the trees are essential! – and I was in such a location we encountered it today. There is a different response to seeing a very beautiful plant and to seeing one such as the bird’s nest orchid. Our reaction to beauty is simple, well rehearsed and well practiced while our reaction to the bird’s nest orchid is one of wonder, puzzlement, amazement, fascination and, indeed, admiration.

Neottia nidus-avis Bird's Nest Orchid (66)
It was wonderful to see such large clumps
Neottia nidus-avis Bird's Nest Orchid (57)
The flower spikes of the previous year have persisted while the new shoots are emerging. The old flower spikes can persist for two or more years, it seems.

The ways of plants and the natural world will, no doubt, continue to surprise and delight us and today was one of those special days of delight and wonder.

Mark Roper
These treasures of our countryside do deserve close examination and my companion today was very attentive!

Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook

 

 

 

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