Sunday, June 21, 2009

on the by-pass



I kind of went through my orchid phase soon after getting into wild flowers. Like a lot of people, I suppose, I bought into the glamour and the fabulous rarities and, in the fervour of those early days, I went rather overboard about it; orchids are to wild plants as Dostoyevsky is to literature. Consequently (and rather unfairly) there's no group of plants about which I now feel less excited - well, that's an exaggeration of course, because there's plenty of groups of plants I've never given any thought to at all. Anyway, I couldn't overlook these wonderful banks of orchids which over the last few years have gradually spread along the verges of the local by-pass. These verges are now around twenty years old. Although orchids are long-lived perennials, they are also opportunistic colonizers, but it is a slowish business. It takes quite a few years for the ground to develop its mycorrhizal richness, for the minute orchid seeds to show up, and for the plants to grow from such tiny beginnings (the seeds themselves carry hardly any on-board food, and are dependent on the fungal partner to supply it) up to the point when they are mature enough to put up a flower-spike.

These orchids are basically two species, the common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and the pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis). Both are common plants, the former the commonest orchid of the whole lot, though it always attracts a lot of earnest scrutiny from inexperienced orchidophiles because the individual plants vary so widely, so it sets you to thinking about possible great rarities and about even rarer hybrids. When it comes to orchids, these fantasies are not so ludicrous as they might be. The seeds, being so light and so numerous, disperse so widely that even rare species do have a habit of turning up in totally unpredictable places. And orchids tend to favour the same spots as other orchids, so when you find one species you have a hunt around and you often find others. As a distribution pattern this resembles mushrooms more than it does other flowering plants. What's also like mushrooms is the way that plants who are standing right next to each other can be completely identical in every way except that one is twenty times bigger than the other. The weird glamour of orchids has a lot to do with their mysterious transactions with the other kingdom. (A bit like when pet-owners, jockeys or ethologists start to look like their animal companions.)

One difference from twenty-five years ago is that now anyone can take good close-ups of the flowers. The technology of macro and supermacro photography has effectively been given away for free to High Street shoppers, so it's hard to remember that there was a time when unless you were a serious photographer you could never get closer to any plant than four feet away. Unfortunately, it remains as difficult as ever to capture a more panoramic impression of the jaw-dropping profusion of spikes in a flush such as this: the photo above was the best I could do, and it looks nearly as uninspiring as it did in the days when I was using 35 mil.



Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)



Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)



A solitary bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) showed up too, here blurrily seen along with the two other species. [NB Isn't it rather pointed of Stace, on the final page of his great flora, not to even mention the well-known "wasp orchid" variety of this species?]

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