The Orchid Hunter

This is book bursting at the binding with enthusiasm and an almost obsessive love of our native orchids. Leif Bersweden, a precocious botanist who fell in love with native wildflowers as a child, was unsuccessful in his initial application for a place at Oxford University and decided to use his gap year to track down and photograph all the native orchids of Great Britain and Ireland in one year (with one forgivable exception, The Ghost Orchid, as it is so very rare) a feat which had not been completed previously.

THE ORCHID HUNTER

The first ticked off his list was the Early Purple Orchid and his last Autumn Lady’s Tresses which, by coincidence, were my own first and last of this past season though I must confess that I didn’t come across the other fifty in between.  Our native orchids are extraordinarily interesting and it is not uncommon for those who take an interest in them to find they are willing to go to some extremes to view one not found previously. With a group of friends I made several such journeys during this past season and one suggested we ought to dub our group the Fellowship Of Orchid Lovers with the appropriate abbreviation of F.O.O.Ls. Leif Bersweden would have been a very welcome member!

Orchis mascula Early Purple Orchid (10)
Orchis mascula, The Early Purple Orchid – the first of his list found by Leif Bersweden

 

His year was certainly a madcap adventure and how wonderful that we have eighteen year olds who have the interest and enthusiasm to do such things. His travels, in a none too reliable car, ranged from the south of England, to Wales and to the north of Scotland, to the Island of Jersey and to Ireland. He has since completed his degree in botany and, with such enthusiasm, I can only imagine and hope he has every success.

As he works his way though his list of orchids and his accounts of finding them we are treated to general historic notes on each species, when it was first recorded, what previous authors and authorities have said about each, the origins of the name and vernacular names applied along with the excitement of the search and the eventual find. We are treated regularly to idyllic bucolic descriptions of the various locations in which he found himself and these read a little a little sweet at times – “Chaffinches were trilling from the hedges and sheep bleated in the fields down in the valley. A barge chugged silently past on the river below cutting a wide “V” shape into the otherwise glass-like water.”

Spiranthes spiralis Autumn Lady's Tresses (40)
Spiranthes spiralis, Autumn Lady’s Tresses – the final orchid of the search. 

The subtitle to the book is “A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness” might first be assumed to refer to the happiness he would achieve in locating all the orchids but there is a regular parallel narrative through the book where the author expresses his thoughts on personal matters. As a child with an interest in wildflowers he felt apart from his peers and, as a teenager, regrets that his hobby is so often one engaged in alone. He wishes for a friend who might share his interest and had the company of a lady for part of his summer pursuit but, as the saying goes, he blew it. Most will choose this book for what it has to say on orchids – I cannot imagine too many are overly concerned about the author’s happiness though, of course, we would wish him well – and this thread in the book is incongruous. There are also some comments on those who helped and advised him which might kindly be described as juvenile humour where the editor’s red pencil might have been justifiably applied.

This book will be of little use to anybody wishing to learn more about our native orchids; it will certainly not become a book of reference but it will be a light read for those already interested. Indeed, I found the many quotations and references to earlier books especially interesting and enjoyable. Though he mentions taking a very large number of photographs in the course of his adventure, very few are used in the book – one for each species recorded and these gathered as one group in the centre of the book. There is a scattering of line drawing through the book, some illustrating orchids and others various views and vignettes mentioned in the text.

THE ORCHID HUNTER

The author has since completed his degree in botany and considering orchids as a topic for his PhD. It is heartening to see young people taking up botany and Leif Bersweden, with his enthusiasm and single-mindedness, is likely to make significant contributions to the depths of our knowledge in years to come. I wish him the best.

[The Orchid Hunter, A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness by Leif Bersweden, Short Books, London, 2017, Hardback, 352 pages, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1-78072-334-1]

Paddy Tobin

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The Fools’ Outing

There is available to us all the most wonderful nature reserve and wildflower preservation area and these are on the verges of our national road network. Many of these roads have wide verge and some have wonderfully steep banks. These latter are especially excellent as their slope makes grass cutting too awkward  and wildflowers are allowed to grow naturally. These areas are, in fact, the closest we have in most areas of the country to the natural meadows of days now long gone. Of course, they do lack grazers and cannot be maintained in the traditional manner of old meadows  – though we still see the occasional horse grazing the long acre!

Roadside - site of Ophrys apifera Bee Orhid (1)
Roadside verges and banks can be rich in wildflowers

Roadside - site of Ophrys apifera Bee Orhid (4)

Many local authorities – perhaps, being clever and adopting a present gardening fashion for wildflower meadows – have stopped cutting the grass on these verges. This certainly must save them a great deal of time and money and clearly fulfills their brief of caring for wildlife, wildflowers etc. I do hope it becomes a widespread practice to leave the verges to nature. I can understand the need to prevent the growth on the verges tumbling on to the roadway and see the sense in maintaining a narrow strip immediately to the side of the road but leaving the remainder to its own devices.

These roadside verges can be home to some of our most scarce and most elusive wildflowers. A few weeks back the telephone and Facebook Messenger was busy with reports of a population of an especially interesting and rare variety of the fabulous Bee Orchid. It began with the information that it had been spotted on a roadside in Co. Tipperary some years back. I mentioned this to an enthusiast who lived in the general area and he began his search and it wasn’t long before he found a plant, and another, and another until he realised he had found a significant population. The word went out and we were off! The Fools’ Outing! Four senior and one junior member – it is such a joy to see a junior member, the future lifeblood of any group!

Ophrys apifera var. chlorantha (25)
Ophrys apifera var. chlorantha – a pale form of the Bee Orchid

Ophrys apifera var. chlorantha (18)

Ophrys apifera var. chlorantha (26)

Sat. nav. coordinates make arriving at an exact location such a doddle these days and we pulled into the road verge within steps of our quarry. I am old, retired, and at times think I am very silly and foolish to be so delighted by the sight of a pretty little flower but I also consider myself very fortunate that such a little thing can make me so very happy. It is a childish feeling, the joy of discovery and the marvelling at the beauty of nature and I hope it remains with me forever. I noted that the other Fools were just as happy and delighted as I was so I was in good company!

Our friend had brought us to a population of Ophrys apifera variety chlorantha – a pale variety of the Bee Orchid. The Bee Orchid delights everybody who sees it – a flower that has developed to resemble a bee so as to attract the bees to come and pollinate it. Such a clever ingenious development, truly amazing! The more common Bee Orchid is quite strongly marked while this variety is much more pale. Sand dunes seems to be an especially good location to see Bee Orchids and steep road verges with good drainage and less than lush grass growth seem to offer the conditions they require also.

Ophrys apifera (6)
This is the Bee Orchid, Aphrys apifera, a wonderfully designed and coloured flower

Ophrys apifera (9)

Ophrys apifera (8)
The daisies give a good indication of the size of the Bee orchid – quite a small thing and it can be difficult to spot but after spotting one your eye seems to easily find another and another.

We ooooed and aaaaaaawwwed these pale Bee Orchids for a considerable time and took photographs of each and every one of them from every possible angle so that we could revisit the occasion later on our laptop screens. Passers-by must have wondered what we were up to – people lying on the grassy verge pointing cameras, seemingly, at the ground.

We explored further along this stretch of road and found a good population of the usual Bee Orchid as well as small numbers of Western Marsh Orchid, Common Spotted and Pyramidal Orchid as well as the uncommon broomrapes. We have had reports – from our intrepid explorer of this area – of a very healthy and numerous population of the Pyramidal Orchid not too far away on the road.

Here are a number of our other finds along this roadside:

Anacamptis pyramidalis Pyramidal orchid (2)
Pyramidal orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis 
Dactylorhiza fuchsii Common Spotted Orchid (34)
Common Spotted Orchis, Dactylorhiza fuchsii
Dactylorhiza fuchsii Common Spotted Orchid White (2)
A nearly pure white variant of the Common Spotted orchid
Neottia ovata Common Twayblade (10)
Common Twayblade – Neottia ovata
Neottia ovata Common Twayblade (13)
Common Twayblade – Neottia ovata 
Dactylorhiza occidentalis Western Marsh Orchid (2)
Western Marsh Orchid – Dactylorhiza occidentalis. This is a species which grows only in Ireland. Note: We did wonder about the identification of this orchid when we were at the site and I have received a comment that it might be of mixed blood – something common among the Dactylorhizas. It would appear it has some Common Spotted Orchid blood in it.

These road verges are treasure troves of wildflowers and provide some of the last remaining areas of undisturbed land where they may flourish. I don’t imagine it would be a great challenge for local authorities or the national road authority to maintain these verges in a manner necessary for road safety yet suitable for these wonderful wildflowers.

Oooh, “Fools”?  The Fellowship of Old Orchid Lovers!  We may as well laugh at ourselves as we enjoy life!

Paddy Tobin

 

Post Scriptum: By coincidence, I read this article from the Irish News of a great success in Northern   Ireland.

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Oh, Please, let me be Undisturbed and Unimproved!

It a treat to come on a spot of land where conditions have dictated that nature rather than the work of man will hold sway and then to enjoy the wild flowers which have benefitted from this chance happening, especially those which would otherwise not have survived.

Anacamptis morio Green Veined Orchid (41)
The Green-Veined Orchid, Anacamptis morio
Anacamptis morio Green Veined Orchid (50)
The Green-Veined Orchid, Anacamptis morio, with its regular companion plant, the cowslip, Primula Veris

The Green-Veined Orchid, Anacamptis morio, is particular as to where it will grow. It wants ground which has been left to nature – land which has not been “improved”! It will grow happily in open grassland but should that grassland be “improved” by the addition of fertilizer, which the farmer will do to provide good grazing, it will fail and die out.

Occasionally, the lie of the land will dictate that an area is not suitable for grazing and the farmer will not waste fertilizer on such a spot. With this “neglect” the orchid can thrive. I was directed to such a location recently and visited yesterday.

Val O Neill ,Boytonrath House, New Inn ,Cashel , Co. Tipperary (3)
A stream has made a boggy area on the floor of this valley and it is fenced off to keep animals out. The line at the top of the photograph shows the boundary at the roadside. The steep sides have limestone outcrops and cowslips and Green-Veined Orchids grow here. 
Val O Neill ,Boytonrath House, New Inn ,Cashel , Co. Tipperary (5)
The orchids seem to do best along the tops of the outcrops, right to the edge. 

A small stream ran through a small valley which was flanked by limestone cliffs and outcrops. The bottom of the valley was marshland, with a very healthy population of the flag iris and bogbean, and had been fenced off for the safety of the grazing cattle. One side of the valley was contained by the stream on one side and road on the other so animals had no access to it. The contained, undisturbed and unimproved land was home to a large and thriving population of cowslips, Primula veris, and to the Green-Veined Orchis, Anacamptis morio. To see such a thriving colony of cowslip would be a treat in itself but to find a healthy population of the Green-Veined Orchid made it a very special visit indeed. These two plants are regular growing companions and, from a colour combination point of view, they look wonderful together.

Anacamptis morio Green Veined Orchid (10)
Companion plants: Green-Veined Orchid and Cowslip

At first glance the Green-Veined Orchid might pass for the more commonly seen Early Purple Orchid which is seen in particularly big numbers on The Burren. However, a closer look will show the veining on the hood of each flower. Flower colour can vary from a dark and intense purple, through lighter purple, pink and even to white and the veining really only appears as green on the lighter coloured flowers – green would not stand out at all in the darker coloured forms. The Green-Veined Orchid also lacks the spots one sees on the foliage of the Early Purple. The structure of the flower is also a little different with the upper parts forming a hood or helmet in the Green-Spotted. An examination of these little details is essential to be sure of identification but time taken to look carefully, to enjoy the intricacy of design and colouration, to take in the intrinsic beauty is what makes a day memorable.

A selection of Green-Veined Orchid showing the variation in colour and the veining of the hood.

The lay of the land and the landowner’s concern for the good of his animals have helped preserve this spot of Irish wildflowers. Fortunately, he is conscious of the treasures nature has bestowed and is proud to ensure their future. We could do with many more like him!

Paddy Tobin

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