COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
THE caller was excited, but quite certain about what she'd found. There were 21 bee orchids growing in her garden - on her bungalow lawn, to be precise, slap in the middle of the town. It seemed improbable, even with the capricious habits of this bizarre insect-mimic. But my informant sounded as if she knew her plants, and I asked if I could have a look. And, sure enough, there they were - 19 orchids (two had been lopped off by the mower before she had noticed them) scattered about the lawn. The first were already open; and the extraordinary flowers - like bumble bees pinned to pink geraniums - still gave me a charge 25 years after I first saw one. They evolved to deceive real bees into pollinating them, but this has never been seen for certain in this country, and the flowers are now self-pollinating.

It is impossible to say how they arrived in this patch of mundane lawn on the clay. Bee orchids usually prefer chalky or sandy soils, but perhaps their seeds had lain dormant since the house was built on what was then rough pasture. Perhaps they had wafted in on the wind (the seeds are ethereally light), though the nearest wild colonies I know are a good five miles away. But perhaps I was wrong to be surprised at all. Exotic, buttonhole, florists - orchids have generated an image of ephemeral glamour and fragility that we've unjustifiably transferred to our native orchids. Some of our 50 or so wild species are indeed on the rack, threatened by habitat destruction and collectors; but many are survivors, adapting brilliantly to post-agricultural and industrial landscapes. This is their peak flowering time, and I thought of the ones that flourish in makeshift niches around the parish: the spotted orchids, with flowers like tiers of pink bone china, which occasionally grace the edge of the station car park; the diminutive frog orchids - not pollinated by frogs, and, with their flattened heads and short tails, more like green tadpoles - that grow almost on one of the greens at a local golf course; the violet helleborine - a genuine woodland rarity - that has crossed a road, and whose velvet-sheened spike is pushing through the concrete drive of an executive villa. Up at the chalk quarry where I watched grebes in the spring, I found six species in flower, including scores of bees and a livid magenta marsh orchid among the sweeps of spotteds. Beyond the parish, orchids are advancing into all kinds of unlikely habitats: chemical spoil heaps, new roundabouts, abandoned US air-bases, even pulverised fly-ash lagoons behind power stations. This colonisation is all the more remarkable when you learn that orchid seeds are so minute that they cannot grow by themselves. They have to find - and live off for years - the right fungal partner. Some take 20 years before they flower.

It is only a century since an earlier generation of British botanists thought nothing of felling 4,000 mature rain-forest trees to make it easier to snatch their orchids. We hardly deserve our home-grown philosopher's stones, which are turning some of our basest habitats into jewels. 8

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