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Nature Studies

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

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.


For further reading

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