A bloom back from the brink

After a fierce vetting process, Michael McCarthy was finally granted a glimpse of the elusive lady's slipper orchid

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Not much of a request, you might think, to go and see a wild flower, even a very rare one - I mean just see it, not pick it or dig it up; just look at it and take a few photographs, admire it and appreciate its beauty. What's the big deal about that? So in one way it seems strangely excessive to be on a train speeding out of London on a cold March morning, bound for a distant cathedral city, where this request will be formally deliberated upon by a secretive and little-known committee.

Not much of a request, you might think, to go and see a wild flower, even a very rare one - I mean just see it, not pick it or dig it up; just look at it and take a few photographs, admire it and appreciate its beauty. What's the big deal about that? So in one way it seems strangely excessive to be on a train speeding out of London on a cold March morning, bound for a distant cathedral city, where this request will be formally deliberated upon by a secretive and little-known committee.

There are nine committee members present, plus the secretary. The meeting is being chaired by a senior botanist from English Nature, the Government's wildlife conservation agency, named Ian Taylor. He is an engaging and friendly man, though his easy-going nature covers a sharp mind. My request to see this flower is Agenda Item Six, but Ian Taylor decides to take it first, and invites me to make my case.

The people round the table are deadly serious and look at me intently. I find to my surprise that I am suddenly nervous, but I put the argument forward and my confidence comes back somewhat as I go through it, because my request itself is a serious one. And then I find I have finished, and I am leaving the room while the committee starts to deliberate.

I sit near the office reception desk. People arrive and depart. Five minutes pass, then 10. I pick fluff off my jacket. I drum my fingers on my knee. Twenty minutes go by, then 25. Phones ring. I get up and walk around. Half an hour passes. I read the notices on the board. Thirty-five minutes. Forty. And then, 44 minutes after my exit from the room, I am invited back in.

I sit down at the big table. There is a brief moment of expectant hush. Then Ian Taylor turns to me and says with a rueful smile: "We are divided."

The passions that orchids arouse are extraordinary. Not only enchantment and delight, but darker emotions: covetousness, cupidity and greed. You might say of these flowers, as was famously said of a modern British politician, that there is something of the night about them.

They are not only the largest family of flowering plants, with an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 species worldwide; they are the most mysterious, glamorous, exotic, outlandish, beautiful blooms on earth. Go to Kew Gardens and gaze upon them: this great cream six-pointed star from Madagascar, this pale purple bell with a yellow-orange heart from the Colombian Andes, this bizarre maroon-spotted cross from Borneo. Flowers were never so voluptuously ravishing, never so desirable - and as a direct consequence, never more at risk.

Orchids are among the most threatened of all plants in their natural environment. What has happened to them around the globe illustrates in the most vivid way the core issue of conservation: the damage that unrestrained human appetite can do to the natural world. For, although human appetite is also behind deforestation and overfishing and pollution and all our other environmental ills, in some of these cases it may seem veiled: but people's lust for orchids is direct. It is such that they are more ruthlessly sought after and collected than any other flowers, with the result that in hundreds of cases they have gone extinct in the wild, or are teetering on the brink. And that meeting in March, in that distant cathedral city, was agonising over just such a case.

It is not a tropical plant, but a native British one. It has a charming name: the lady's slipper. It has a quite stunning appearance, an eye-popping mixture of claret and yellow. But most of all, it has an astonishing position in British flora.

For more than 70 years, the lady's slipper orchid, Cypripedium calceolus, has been the rarest British wild flower, being reduced by collectors not merely to low numbers, but to one plant - a single plant - at a remote site, tenaciously undisclosed and resolutely guarded by those who wish to protect it.

This plant has become a legend in British botany. For orchid lovers, it has assumed almost the status of a myth, a floral grail, spoken of in hushed tones, an object of longing and pilgrimage to be sought and found and gazed upon (and, if they could, some would do more than gaze on it). For conservationists it has become something quite different: an extraordinary symbol of the fight for endangered species, of the struggle to haul them back against formidable odds from the brink of extinction. Such are the emotions it engenders that, for the past 34 years, this single bundle of roots and leaves, which would comfortably fit in a shopping bag, has had a committee of senior scientists and conservationists exclusively devoted to its defence.

Few people have heard of the Cypripedium Committee. It is itself, necessarily, as little known as the location of the lady's slipper. Its meetings are not publicised. The circulation of its agenda is restricted. Its minutes are marked "In confidence". Were you to obtain a copy of them, you would find no clue to the whereabouts of the great survivor, which is referred to solely as "the wild plant", and its location merely as "the wild site".

The committee members come from English Nature; from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; from the National Trust; from the Botanical Society for the British Isles (BSBI); and from the Alpine Garden Society. They are the guardians of Britain's greatest wildlife secret. It was they who, in that distant cathedral city, had argued for 44 minutes over my request to go to the wild site and look upon the wild plant with my own eyes, so that I might tell in full its remarkable story, before Ian Taylor informed me, half-apologetically, that they were split.

There were strong feelings. Some members were determined that no journalist should go near it or draw attention to it. This was partly because visits are kept to an absolute minimum, as the site itself is extremely fragile and subject to erosion - the committee as a whole has made one joint visit in the last 15 years - but mainly because, such is the continuing threat to this singular, solitary object of desire, that absolute secrecy has been the principal technique of protecting it.

For not only rarity makes Cypripedium calceolus special. In appearance, it stands out starkly among the British wild orchids, of which there are about 50 species. They are generally more restrained flowers than their tropical cousins, with elegant upright spikes of pastel pink, pale violet or pale purple (though, let it be said, hugely attractive on their own terms). But the lady's slipper is something again. The flower's lip, or central lower petal, is huge, blousy and bright banana-yellow, shaped like a shoe or a slipper or a clog - a piece of footwear, certainly - while behind, the other petals that frame it are drooping pennants of intense maroon.

There's no elegant pastel restraint about this thing. It is gaudy, glitzy and totally over the top, unique among our flora, the one British orchid which in appearance unmistakably belongs with its exotic tropical cousins: flamboyant, splendid and - to an orchid lover - utterly desirable.

And it paid the price. It was eagerly dug up and collected at least from the 16th century. Victorian orchid-fanciers in particular uprooted it with a frenzy, bringing it back to gardens where they rarely succeeded in growing it, until they had stripped it from virtually all its known locations. Finally, in 1917, it was pronounced extinct.

Except that it wasn't. In 1930, a single plant was found, in a remote location where the collectors had overlooked it, clinging precariously to existence.

The shield protecting this small and fragile growth from human greed for the past seven decades has indeed been secrecy. For the first 40 years it was secrecy pure and simple: the tiny group of naturalists who knew of it kept it strictly to themselves. But gradually, in specialised botanical circles, news of it got out, and in 1970 the president of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, Edgar Milne-Redhead, brought the local naturalists together with English Nature's predecessor, the Nature Conservancy, to form the Cypripedium Committee and put protection on an organised basis.

Since then, in the early-summer flowering season, the plant has been wardened 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is on private land. People who approach - usually orchid lovers who have worked out roughly where the plant is and wish to examine it closely and photograph it - are asked to leave. Sometimes there is unpleasantness; sometimes bribes are mentioned (money, whisky, even Wimbledon tickets have been offered).

But the policy is firm: no public access. Were there any, all those involved believe the plant would be gone in a year, such is the fragility of the habitat. And so some members of the committee, when I put the case to them at that meeting in March, strongly believed there should be no exception for the purpose of telling the lady's slipper story.

But others disagreed. For in the last 15 years, the lady's slipper has not only been protected; it has been reborn. A trick has been learnt that was beyond the Victorian orchid-fanciers who plundered every site of its plants: how to grow Cypripedium calceolus from seed.

Easy it is not. Orchids produce the smallest of all flower seeds, no bigger than dust, so tiny and lacking in nutrition for seedlings that once they have germinated, they need the help of an underground fungus to grow. With the lady's slipper, this fungus has never been identified. But, in the Seventies, scientists at Kew began to work out how to "micropropagate" orchids in the laboratory without the fungus. In the Eighties they attempted to do it with the lady's slipper - and succeeded.

Their techniques have become the basis of an English Nature reintroduction programme for the orchid, drawn up by a former chair of the Cypripedium Committee, Lynne Farrell, and masterminded with great patience and skill over a number of years by a former warden of the lady's slipper wild site, Peter Corkhill.

This has led to the establishment of about 60 seedlings at 12 other sites (one of which will eventually be for public viewing). And, in summer 2000, the whole programme was dramatically vindicated when a Kew seedling, planted close by the original plant 11 years earlier, at last burst into resplendent maroon-and-yellow bloom.

Some members of the committee felt strongly that this story should be fully told, provided it could be done without endangering the wild plant. In April, a further meeting was held to discuss the idea, and eventually, I was informed that - under very strict conditions - I would be allowed to visit the flower that had been brought back from the edge of extinction.

So it was that, earlier this month, I found myself in a historic market town somewhere in England, being picked up by Colin N, a conservation officer with English Nature. I did not know where we were going. We drove for half an hour, then parked the car in a small village.

We walked for another half hour or so, and at length we came to a gate. I went through it first, and a wiry figure suddenly loomed silently out of the trees, looking me straight in the eyes: it was John O, the English Nature warden. And when he was satisfied as to my identity, he and Colin led me further into the site, and pointed. And there it was.

Some moments in our lives stand out: this one did for me. You can say it was only a flower, and you can ask what all the fuss is about, but I can only say I was filled with wonder. It took me some time, watching the blooms glowing in the sunshine (several grow from the one plant) to work out the reasons why.

It was partly the privilege of being allowed to see something that is kept so hidden and secret and guarded. You wouldn't be human if you didn't feel that. It was partly the beauty of the orchid itself, which in the flesh, as it were, was every bit as stunning as the photographs and paintings of it I had seen. It was partly the sense of at last meeting a legendary character one has heard so much about, a famous survivor of so many tribulations.

But most of all, I gradually realised, it was a sense of what had been done here by people. This orchid had suffered the fate of so many of its kind around the world. In fact, no British wild flower had ever been the subject of such unrestrained human appetite as this species; none had ever been hit so hard by the dark part of us that now is destroying the fertility of the forests and the fecundity of the seas and the very planet itself. The lady's slipper had been taken to the brink of extinction, down to a single solitary example; yet that last plant, people had saved.

And there was the reason for wonder: that in a world being ever more trashed and degraded and destroyed, there was hope as well.

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