Exotic and striking in appearance, orchids can be found in a diverse range of habitats – now is the perfect time to discover them, with the Wildlife Trust’s guide to orchids.
Early purple orchid
As its name suggests, the early purple orchid is one of the first of our native orchids to bloom. Flowering at a similar time to bluebells between early April and late May, it is strong enough to grow in the light shade of woodland or out in the open grassland of a road verge. Even when not in flower, it is readily identifiable by its glossy green leaves with dark purple blotches. It remains relatively common but has declined in recent decades due to urban development and modern farming methods. Good populations can be seen at Noar Hill near Selborne and Roydon Woods near Brockenhurst. When the flowers first open they have a sweet scent like honey but once pollinated the flowers smell like the urine of a tomcat! It is thought this may be to warn insects that the flower is no longer worth pollinating.
Similar in appearance to the early purple orchid, the green-winged orchid can be distinguished by its narrow, unspotted leaves and the distinctive veined hoods that sit above its flower, which give it its name. Until the advent of modern farming this orchid was one of the most widespread and common grassland species. Intolerant of artificial fertilisers and herbicides, it has disappeared from half of its historical range and is now mostly confined to nature reserves. You can see populations at Hoe Road Meadow in Bishop’s Waltham and between late April and June at Lower Test nature reserve.
The pyramidal orchid is the county flower of the Isle of Wight. This orchid is easy to identify from the bright pink, pyramid-shaped cluster of flowers on top of the stem. Botanists did not appreciate the close relationship between pyramidal and green-winged orchids until scientists unravelled the plants’ DNA. The association is surprising as there is very little in common about the appearance of their flowers. The pyramidal orchid, which flowers between June and August, sports a long spur containing nectar to entice moths to drink. It grows on most of the Trust’s chalk grassland nature reserves, such as Noar Hill near Selborne, St. Catherine’s Hill in Winchester. It can also be spotted in unlikely places such as roadsides.
The bee orchid is a master of mimicry and has evolved to look like its main pollinator – the longhorn bee. Bizarrely, this bee is rarely found in the UK so the bee orchids found here appear to be self-pollinated – the plant’s male pollen sacs drop onto the female stigma allowing self-pollination to take place. Its windborne seed germinates freely allowing rapid colonisation of small patches of bare ground. This ability means that short-lived populations turn up in unlikely places such as on the edge of car parks. The bee orchid is however at its best in parched sunny habitats and can be abundant where the ground has been disturbed, such on Noar Hill, Farlington Marshes and Blashford Lakes nature reserves.
When admiring orchids please remember the immature plants that may surround the flowering spike. Avoid trampling future flowers by keeping to the paths and thoroughly checking where you put your feet.