Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Orchids – the rare, refined beauties of the plant world

Might the day ever come when it would be thought inappropriate to express open and unqualified admiration for an orchid – I mean for its beauty, its elegance and its glamour? Well, stranger things have happened.

I have spent the middle years of my life watching a novel thought process take shape in our culture, and gather force: the undermining of the idea of excellence. I spent my early years in a world where the worth of excellence seemed to be taken for granted by everybody, across the political spectrum: it was a cornerstone of the postwar meritocracy, as indeed it had been a cornerstone of European civilisation since Classical Greece. But things have changed.

It is a commonplace that in the last quarter of a century, two opposing political visions have prevailed in two different parts of our society. In economics, the vision of the free market, the vision of the Right, has carried all before it; but in social policy the key idea of the Left, that of egalitarianism, has won no less signal a victory. For this is not egalitarianism as in equality of opportunity, a political concept at least as old as the American Declaration of Independence in 1776; this is a new egalitarianism, as in equality of outcome. The key idea is that there should be no more losers – not hard to sympathise with that – and therefore the corollary is that there should be no more winners, either. In anything. No more excellence. No more elites.

So a concept, say, which has been central to European poetry since the troubadours of Provence began it all in the 11th century, the praise of feminine beauty, more or less ceases to be valid, because it is seen as offensive to women who may not be thought beautiful, or it is seen as patronising to women who may have many gifts other than accidental beauty. If not invalid, at the very least such praise becomes suspect. Quite suddenly. Just like that. Petrarch should try singing the praises of his Laura today, and her beautiful eyes, and see if he gets published.

I am not making a stand against this development. I am not even suggesting it is wrong, or bad. I am merely saying that it has undeniably happened, and it is noteworthy. And it makes me think about orchids.

For orchids are, without doubt, widely considered the elite of all plants, for their outstanding loveliness, their elegance, even their glitz – in completely reactionary terms, they are the beautiful women of the plant world – and on my annual orchidising trip the other week, the curious thought occurred to me that admiring them unreservedly for the qualities they possessed, which are not possessed by other plants, might be something which somebody, sooner or later, might object to.

Far-fetched? I dunno.

Britain has about 50 wild orchid species, and apart from one very rare one, the lady's slipper, they are not exotic in their beauty like many tropical orchids; they are mainly upright, medium-sized spikes of flowers in pastel shades ranging from palest pink to purple. But beautiful many of them undoubtedly are, and it is their beauty which draws enthusiasts to hunt them out eagerly, in their season.

I did my own hunting this year at Box Hill in Surrey in the company of my friend Nigel Hepper, a wonderful botanist, a man able to take the little yellow things growing in the roadside verge and resolve them instantly into spring cinquefoil, yellow vetchling, wood avens and mouse-ear hawkweed. (Not surprising, as Nigel retired a few years ago as assistant keeper of the Herbarium at Kew.)

With Nigel's expert guidance we found nine orchid species, beginning with man orchid, a new one for me, whose flowers each appear to have a tiny chap hanging down, as well as bee orchid (looks like a bee), pyramidal orchid (shaped like a pyramid), twayblade and broad-leaved helleborine (neither flowering yet), white helleborine (flowering finished), common spotted orchid (very pretty) and fragrant orchid (definitely fragrant). The highlight was the final species we found, greater butterfly orchid, which is a tall, slender tower of separated small white blooms.

It was exquisite. But I have to say, the thought did occur then, will admiration for this undoubtedly elite beauty, this elevated excellence, come in its turn to be proscribed, once somebody or other notices it is going on? As with Nigel and I, that is, gazing on the orchid in its loveliness, half-hidden at the edge of the beechwood, trembling in the shade.

Understated memories of war

Nigel Hepper will not mind me saying, I am sure, that he is getting on a bit – he was born in 1929 – and his father Raymond Hepper fought in the First World War. Hepper Senior's survival as a young officer in the West Yorkshire Regiment was against all the odds – many of his friends were killed or mutilated – and he kept a vivid diary of his experiences on the Western Front from 1916 onwards. Nigel has now edited the journal and it has been published as Captain Hepper's Great War Diary with a foreword by Anthony Richards of the Imperial War Museum. The book is gripping, not least for its understatement, that dialect of a lost age.

'Captain Hepper's Great War Diary', £15, is available from Hayloft Publishing Ltd, Cumbria (07971 352473;