Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The rosy charms of the red helleborine

A A A

Excitement is an emotion supremely prized by our society, a sensation infinitely in demand, certainly if we judge by the unending stream of blow-'em-up action movies pouring out of Hollywood, or moving closer to home, by the recent jamborees that were the Glastonbury festival and the World Cup. War films, rock music, sport: these seem to be legitimate exciters of our age. Any of them can leave you with an elevated heart rate and no one will think you peculiar for mentioning it. But what about being excited – being very excited – by a flower? Does that mean you're as normal as a Glastonburygoer or a football fan? Or are you just a teeny bit on the idiosyncratic side?

Perhaps it helps to say it was an orchid. Orchids are the world's most glamorous blooms, so maybe there might be instinctive sympathy for someone salivating in the presence of a flower with genuine star quality. Yet this was no exotic pin-up from the rainforests, no voluptuous combination of violet and orange from Borneo; this was a small English orchid, from the Home Counties. And it excited me beyond words.

It was the red helleborine. It is very rare. In fact, its conservation status in Britain is officially Critically Endangered, as it is found on only three sites, in the Cotswolds, in Hampshire and in the Chilterns, and is not always visible on all of them. It is probably the third-rarest wild flower in the country after two other members of the orchid family, the ghost orchid, rediscovered on the Welsh borders last September after 23 years when it had been declared extinct, and the lady's slipper, a single plant of which has been guarded round the clock, when it flowers in its secret location, for several decades.

Apart from this last named, which is a flashy mixture of maroon and banana-yellow, almost kitsch – it could be a plant in a Dolly Parton song – Britain's wild orchids are not spectacular like their tropical cousins; they are restrained, you might almost say in a typically British way. But they are hugely attractive: elegant upright flower spikes in a range of pastel shades in which pale purple and cream tend to predominate. There are only about 55 species, a very similar figure to the number of our butterflies, so you can get a handle on them fairly easily, and with the probable exception of the ghost orchid, an attempt to see them all, over time, is a realistic ambition.

I've seen something under half of them. I was set on the orchid path of dalliance by my friend Peter The Proper Botanist, who once offered to show me a dozen wild orchid species in a day and proceeded to do so in an unforgettable outing which left me orchid-smitten beyond cure. So when Peter mentioned that this year he might be able to show me the red helleborine in flower, I jumped at the chance, and on the cloudless morning that was Monday gone I found myself beside him, marvellously expectant, at the edge of a hillside beechwood.

The exact location is confidential, but it will give you a rough idea to tell you that we were being guided by John Tyler and Alan Showler, two volunteers from BBOWT, which is the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. The woodland was exquisite, glowing with shimmering green light and animated with butterflies, ringlets and large skippers nectaring on the brambles, but that was a mere preparation for its secret treasure, which we found by striking off the path across the wooded slope, pushing through undergrowth and clambering over fallen trunks until eventually we beheld it in the dappled shade of a young beech: three slender stems each bearing half a dozen purplish-pink blossoms.

I gazed and gazed. I couldn't get over it. Like most orchids they were very lovely, almost top-heavy in that the flowers seemed too big and luxurious for the stems that supported them, and the colour invited you in to wander in its mysteries: sometimes it seemed pink and sometimes it seemed something else ("rosine" was the world Peter used). They would have been magnificent had they been as common as daisies. Yet they were as rare as pearls, or even rarer (in Britain at least), clinging on to existence, and the privilege of glimpsing them in the secret depths of the woodland left me so thrilled that when the time came to leave I found it hard to tear myself away, looking back at them and back at them as they were gradually swallowed up by the emerald leaves of the beech trees.

And you know what? I'm still buzzing with it now. So at the moment, if you meet me at the bar and you want to talk excitement, it's no use asking me what I thought of Mission Impossible 6 or did I catch Dizzee Rascal's set or why, oh why was Lampard's goal disallowed. I'll talk to you about flowers, mate, or at least, about one flower in particular. And there won't be any stopping me.

Voice of reason

There is heartening news for orchid-lovers and indeed for anyone who loves any aspect of our native flora: Peter Ainsworth has become chairman of Plantlife, the wild flower charity. The former Conservative Shadow Environment Secretary, MP for East Surrey until the last election, was always the Tory who saw the point, as far as Britain's green campaigners were concerned, and now that he has left Parliament he wants to give more time to the environment and the arts, long his two principal concerns. Westminster's loss is very much the environment's gain: expect to hear the mellifluous Ainsworth tones more and more defending the natural world.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

For further reading

'Britain's Orchids' by David Lang (WildGuides); 'Orchids of Britain and Ireland' by Anne and Simon Harrap (A&C Black)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
The Manchester United team walk out ahead of the pre-season friendly between Manchester United and Inter Milan at FedExField
News
i100
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
News
media
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior C++ Developer

£350 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Senior C++ Developer – L...

SEN English Teacher

upto £110 a day approx: Randstad Education Cheshire: English EBD Teacher requi...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Client Services Associate (MS Office, Analysis, Graduate)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client Services Associate (Microsoft Office, Ana...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz