Orchids breed to form Britain's first hybrid

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Two rare orchid species have interbred for the first time in Britain to produce a new hybrid.

Monkey orchids and lady orchids, which are closely related, produced the new flower at Hartslock Nature Reserve in south Oxfordshire. Scientists at the Natural History Museum in London conducted a morphological analysis and confirmed the two species had interbred to produce the intermediate variety. Genetic analysis, carried out by Dr Mike Fay and colleagues at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, proved the plant was a new hybrid. It is the first time that this particular interbreeding has been recorded in the UK.

Martyn Lane, a reserves manager for the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, which runs Hartslock, said: "The monkey orchid has always been on this site as far as we know. It's only found on two native sites in England. The lady orchid became established here for the first time in 1998, although we do not know if this occurred naturally or as a result of deliberate planting."

Both species are named because of the shape of their flowers, which resemble a tiny monkey and a crinoline-skirted woman. The hybrid closely resembles another similar species, the military orchid. Professor Richard Bateman, the Natural History Museum's orchid specialist, said: "This raises the possibility that the military orchid could have originated long ago as a result of hybridisation between parents that resembled the monkey and lady orchids."

Dr Fay said: "We should be moving away from the idea of protecting individual species in this case and instead be thinking about 'conservation of process', that is to say, maintaining the capacity of species to evolve and disperse. If hybridisation between closely related species is part of that, then so be it."