Entranced by orchids

Blog post by David North on 07 Aug, 2018
Strange, rare and beautiful, I have been captivated by Norfolk’s orchids this summer. If you are ‘into orchids’ then you will understand my fascination and of course the bonus is that searching out orchids takes you to some great wildlife places. There’s something extraordinary about this group of plants. They hold a certain magic, a fascination, and be warned, once you catch the orchid bug your life will never be quite the same. But what exactly is an orchid? How do you get to find them? What is it about them that inspires such passion?

Some orchids are large, colourful and showy: others are tiny, difficult to spot, dull-green plants with dull-green flowers. Indeed some, such as the birds-nest orchid, lack chlorophyll, and at their best and brightest struggle to outshine a dead twig – that is unless you have caught the orchid bug!
Heath spotted orchid, by David North

Bee orchid, by David North

World-wide there are more than 25,000 species of orchids, making the orchidaceae, named from the Greek for testicle, one of the most diverse of all plant families. Next time you eat a vanilla ice-cream remember vanilla is extracted from the seed pods of a species of Mexican orchid – the vanilla orchid.

The orchid family is species rich and very variable, all part of its allure, but there are some features shared by all European orchids:
  • Flowers forming a single spike
  • Each individual flower having one petal, known as the labellum, forming a distinctive, often patterned, lower lip
  • Leaves lacking a stalk
  • Male and female parts of the flower fused
  • Tiny seeds
A more hidden characteristic of the family is their reliance on fungi. Many plants, probably the vast majority of all plant species, have relationships with fungi, but orchids have carried this to an extreme degree. In effect they begin their lives as parasites on fungi. Their tiny seeds carry no food store. Stealing their nutrients from fungi, orchid plants begin their development underground, and may grow for several years before putting out leaves above ground.
During the recent hot weather I decided to visit two of my favourite orchid spots: NWT’s Buxton Heath reserve near Aylsham and the sand dunes between Burnham Overy and Holkham on the North Norfolk coast. The wetter areas of Buxton heath in early July provided me with opportunities to photograph two orchid species that I rarely see, the showy Marsh Helleborine and the uncommon Marsh Fragrant Orchid. In the same marshy habitat the very attractive Heath Spotted Orchid was growing in profusion, with a stunning range of colour shades from white to deep pink, magenta and crimson. Not so easy to spot, with a tall spike of greenish flowers, were a few Twayblade Orchids, best recognised from the basal pair of broad leaves which gives the orchid its name.
A day later found me on the coast at Burnham Overy on another orchid hunt. I was delighted and suprised to also find many hundred Marsh Helleborines growing here, but with much paler flowers than their Buxton Heath relatives. These were in an area of dune slack where earlier in the year marsh orchids had flowered in profusion. Now, apart from on single marsh orchid flower, all that remained were the dried out spikes of marsh orchid seed heads. Close by, on the drier dune slopes, I was pleased to photograph Pyramidal Orchids. Though many were beginning to go over there were plenty still at their best, pink ice cream cones of flowers rising above a sea of yellow Ladies Bedstraw.
Heath spotted orchid, by David North

Heath spotted orchid, by David North

Nearer to home, as part of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s ‘Wildlife in Common’ project, I have been exploring Thwaite Common near Erpingham. In June and early July more than a thousand common spotted orchids flowered in the wet areas of the common along with smaller numbers of southern marsh orchids. The lower lip on the common spotted does not form a broad skirt as in the heath spotted orchids at Buxton Common. But like their Buxton cousins they do come in a delightful range of colours, with some flowers much more heavily marked with an intricate pattern of lines and spots than others.
Perhaps my most exciting orchid find this summer, with the added excitement of it being on the edge of a track very close to where I live, were a small group of bee orchids. I was able to follow their progress from the opening of the first, and lowest, flower on their spikes to, as I write this in mid July, the topmost flowers now fully open and the lower ones died off and transmuted to greenish seed capsules. Though bee orchid flowers in this country are self-pollinated their complex flowers evolved to attract a specific bee or wasp to be fooled into attempted mating with the flowers and in the process transferring pollen from plant to plant. One of the many mysteries of bee orchids is their habit of appearing in numbers in one year and then vanishing the next. Will mine return next year? I’m certainly hoping they will as watching their growth and development this season has brought me hours of pleasure, hundreds of photos and fuelled my fascination with the mysterious world or orchids.

David North is Head of People and Wildlife at NWT.
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