The flowering season is now in full swing. These two plants (top is Common Spotted, the one below is a Green Winged) were taking full advantage of the sunny Bank Holiday weekend. If you have the chance to visit a meadow this year, now is the time to do it. Well,, actually, anytime is a good time to visit a meadow, but the orchids are bringing some striking colour to the grasslands at the moment. There is plenty of yellow around, but the blues and reds are more the preserve of our orchids. Of course it is easy to find exceptions to such generalisations, but the idea is sound. At the same time that these two species were out there was another orchid in full flower and that was our Twayblade. A very easily overlooked plant with its two leaves and small greenish-yellow flowers, but it is another species that indicates how well a meadow is doing. This one, which is Eade's Meadow, close to Bromsgrove, is doing very well. It is under the stewardship of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and they do a very good job of maintaining a meadow that was a result of decades of farming practice in tune with the land.
Here's a thing, it is a frequent comment made by casual visitors to our stand at plant fairs that they like orchids - but they can't grow them. It is no use saying we have done the difficult bit and once established orchids are good and robust, but they are. The photograph is a superb example of this. I took the picture about two weeks ago and you can see two Common Spotted orchids, one in the middle and the other towards the top right hand corner. These are both established plants, both several years old and both determined to ignore the potential disruption wrought by the horses hooves. They were obviously shifted and rearranged when a horse came by in wet and muddy conditions. More or less dug up and moved, these plants are living proof of the robustness of established orchids.
I cannot guarantee that all species are quite so hardy, but quite a few are, especially other Dactylorhiza species and the plants which are rhizomatous. A species of this type is the Twayblade, it grows as a creeping rhizome, and I know of an area in Shropshire which is popular with riders and quite often find battered Twayblades which have been trodden on by a horse, but they keep growing.
Of course, there are limits and repeated trampling will not do them any good. But they are tough and like all plants, will grow if they can.
We have had a very variable Spring this year and it has slowed our plants down quite a bit. We were intending to get our full range onto the web site for sale by now, but nature decided differently. What we intend to do is take all of our available plants with us to the plant fairs we are going to attend, the first one being at the end of April at Spetchley Gardens. We like going to this one as it is the season opener for us. The weather can be a little chilly sometimes, but it is always an entertaining event. Because this is going to be the best way of buying our plants, we are going to take along a number of pots where we have potted up several to a pot. These will be very good value, although the plants will be small. Keeping them in the pot and growing them on before planting out should ensure a very successful outcome.
In the meantime, we have to wait for our orchids to start growing before we can risk them in the post and this year they are slow. The consequence of this is that we will have to be patient, after all, our orchids have taken four years to get this far, another few weeks to make sure they are healthy is worth waiting for.
The 12th February is a very important date, for one very good reason. 209 years ago Charles Darwin was born. Besides all of the work he carried out on evolution, distilling observations and making connections in a scientific manner, he did many other things as well. He wrote on the distribution of coral reefs (1842), geology (1844 and later), barnacles (1851), climbing plants (1865), expression of emotions (1872), insectivorous plants (1875) and many other subjects, including in 1862 methods of orchid pollination.
It is this one that is of particular interest because young Darwin, born and brought up in Shrewsbury would have been familiar with the Butterfly Orchid that still grows in Shropshire and the night flying moth that sips the nectar and pollinates the flower. This lovely white native orchid is just like Angraecum sesquipedale of Madagascar, only in miniature. It was unknown for many years what animal was responsible for pollination of this flower as it has a very long spur on the flower at the bottom of which is the nectar treat. Darwin guessed that the pollinator was a hawk moth with a very long tongue and so it turned out to be. When the pollinator was finally found it turned out to be a hawk moth, Xanthopan morganii, with a tongue about 30cm long.
So raise a glass to Charles Darwin a very versatile biologist and a clear thinker who knew how to interpret what he saw from what he had seen.
I was quite surprised to receive a request the other day for Ghost Orchids, Epipogium aphyllum. This was an odd request because this is a Wildlife and Countryside Act Schedule 8 species, which in broad terms mean it is a completely protected species, from the seeds on wards it must be left alone. This particular species also comes with what as a professional grower I would describe as a 'don't even try' label. Ghost Orchids are one of the species which has no chlorophyll, so it remains totally dependent upon its symbiotic fungus throughout its life. Being independent of light to live, it does not need leaves, so it does not need to pop up above ground except to flower and seed, a process which may not happen very often, the plant growing underground. While we might think this is a bit odd, it has animal parallels. With the Ghost Orchid we can start to think of the plant above ground, the flower, as the least ecologically important part of the life cycle. The animal similarity can be found in many different groups, for example the mayflies. We all know the reputation of the short life span of the adult, but some species, such as Ephemera, can have a larval stage which lasts two or three years. The larva has a great significance in the ecology of the water it lives in, the adult really only being there to perpetuate the important larval stage. This hidden importance is quite common, but we tend to only be aware of the 'above ground' plants and animals, which is in many ways a shame since if we have a wider horizon we can improve our gardening and the plants we grow. Think in terms of you soil being a living thing, it is not just worms that are in there it is also all the fungi and bacteria, which is what helps hold the soil together and gives it a structure. When you are next in the garden, when the weather permits, think about all the life below ground and how some of our orchids, like the Ghost Orchid and Bird's-nest Orchid, Neottia nidus-avis, are underground, enriching the environment, even if you cannot see them.
This is the time of year to think forward. My favourite species, the Common Spotted orchid, is a springtime delight. As soon the leaves start coming through with their unique pattern of spots and stripes they proclaim 'Here we are, back again to make you smile.' The one above was flowering for the first time in 2017, in amongst Bloody Cranesbill on a raised flowerbed. Grown from seed it was chronologically three years old, but because of the way we grow our plants it was in fact five growing seasons old. This delightful plant, along with our other garden orchids will be flowering and seeding for many years to come not that they are all established.
The same situation is true for our meadow, which is a very much larger project. It will take a lot longer and many more plants to produce an established colony than it has done in our garden. It really does not matter how long it takes, the important thing is that it will be done. If, as I described on the Home Page, there has been a massive decline in flying insects the more I can do to help out the better. Make no mistake about this, if there are no flying insects there will be no apples, pears, plums, well fruit in general. We will be increasing our recolonization with Fragrant Orchids, Gymnadenia conopsea, as this species seems to be particularly attractive to butterflies and bees.
So although we currently only have Common Spotted orchids for sale on the Plants For Sale page, nextyear the range will be expanding. This, as ever, depends on the overwinter survival of the seedlings in pots, but introduction of a new greenhouse should ensure we have a good range for you next year.
In the meantime, enjoy contemplating the pleasures of new growth next year and look after your plants, you can be proud of your help in conserving our native orchids.
Just recently the journal Nature published an article by a group who have sequenced a Chinese orchid Apostasia shenzhenica. This may seem a bit obscure as a subject, but it does throw some interesting light on the was that orchids as a whole have become what they are. It does not answer all the questions, but what it does do is give us a glimpse of how very small and simple changes can have a huge affect on the way in which a plant grows.
Among the interesting aspects of the research that was reported were comparisons of gene activity when compared with other orchid species and plants which were not orchids, but share common genes. Like all species, some basic genes are so fundamental that they appear in virtually all species. One of these is the gene AGL12. This gene seems to be fundamental in producing roots associated with terrestrial growth, as we find in our native British species. The epiphytic species have lost this gene and produce their typical root forms from another genetic process. In a similar way, the gene associated with production of lateral roots, another thing epiphytes tend not to do, is ANR1 and also lacking except in the terrestrial species. The team who did the work also recognised that the nature of orchid seeds, that is having no endosperm, seemed to be traceable to a conserved gene group widely found in other plants.
All of this work is based on automated systems and complicated statistical software, but it did surprise me that they had a little section on genome size estimation where they used this tremendous hammer to crack a nut. Estimating the genome size of the Apostasioideae as a group between 0.38pg and 5.96 pg. What was a surprise was that there is a very easy way of measuring the DNA mass of a cell by quantitatively dyeing it and then measuring the optical absorption, from which a simple calculation gives a figure in grams. I know this because I used to do it myself on cells and individual chromosomes. On second thoughts, it did take me a year to work out the details so that the results were reliable.
Anyway, the paper was quite fascinating and gave an insight into how small genetic changes can have a profound phenotypic affect. For example, once symbiotic germination is established the need for an endosperm is lost, so the gene becomes redundant and then symbiotic germination is essential to the ecology of the plant.
At this time of year, when lots of people are thinking about starting the new school year, we are thinking about potting up our new season of plants. These are the ones which have been in pots for most of this year, getting used to the weather and developing strong roots. Because we try not to disturb the plants too much, if they are not being sent out they tend to be left to grow unhindered in their pots throughout the year. So usually by now they have some moss and an occasional weed in the pot with them. To make sure they have an unhindered growth in the spring repotting them clears out the weeds and lets us see what is going on with root development. This can sometimes take us by surprise and requires a larger pot in anticipation of next years growth. If they do go into bigger pots they have reached a size where they are too big to send through the post and will only appear at our plant fairs. We generally sell these larger plants at a very reasonable price and they are often either in bud, or even in flower by the time they get to their first plant fair. Some of these orchids not only look good as green plants, but have a spectacular flower as well. These seem to sell very quickly and only stay on the stand for a short time before being bought by a customer. A species of this type is the Pyramidal Orchid, which as one of our winter green species, has to have repotting timed quite carefully.
Most of our native orchids grow throughout the summer and are dormant during the autumn and winter months and these can be repotted at anytime while they are dormant, a period of several months. Our winter green species, of which Pyramidal Orchids and Green Winged Orchids are two examples, are different in having a very short dormancy in late summer before growing leaves which will spend the winter flat against the ground waiting for spring. This means that repotting has to be clearly timed to avoid damaging the actively growing parts of the plant.
So if you have orchids in pots that you want to rehouse, now is a good time to do it, the winter dormant species have more or less stopped growing and the winter green species have not restarted growing yet. Grab your John Innes number 2 and enjoy the late summer sun.
This photograph is a source of some disquiet, the problem is easily described, the solution is not. The photo was taken after a shower of rain, which is why the soil is dark. Its normal colour is the red of sand, as it is in fact a soil that originates like much of the soil around north Worcestershire from sandstone. It was taken earlier this year in our meadow and shows what happens when thoughtless walking takes place. There are no rights of way across this land and no public access, it having a stock proof fence all the way round it. Now, however, inconsiderate dog walker have repeatedly damaged the fence to get into the meadow where in a very short time they have worn a track, thereby encouraging others to assume it is a legal path, which it is not. Even the signs we have put up to state there is no right of way have been removed.
The upshot of this is that our very delicate ecosystem is being eroded. Because the soil is so very light it does not take much to damage the grass, expose the soil so that it washes away. It is the lightness of the soil and low productivity that has saved it from all but the very lightest grazing, but now we have walker damage.
At least the walkers seem to broadly stick to their self made path, but it is getting wider and perilously close to the area that contains our orchids. Oh, yes, and no ground nesting birds this year. The question is, what is to be done?
To that question we don't have an answer. One thing we did think about was planting a native species hedge, but the point of access the soil is too light to support anything but scrubby growth of things like hawthorn and field maple. Perhaps we just have to put up with it, but that does seem a shame, to just accept someone else's selfish attitude to the planet.
This enticing bud is from a Pyramidal Orchid and will soon be in full flower and very lovely it will be, too. This one will be the traditional very dark shade, although we do see pale forms occasionally. We will be keeping this one, along with one other, for this years seed, but also for our exciting project of repopulation of a hillside meadow.
These plants have been grown by us in the usual way, in sterile culture and then introduced to potting compost. But we have started a rather interesting way of doing this. We keep a sample of soil with the appropriate symbiotic fungus labelled and ready to use. Actually, when I say a sample I really mean a lot, enough to do a lot of potting from. When the stock starts to run down it can be replenished with a suitable potting compost and mixed in, whereupon the fungus populates the entire mixture. This seems to introduce a symbiotic fungus which will invade the adult plant, or at least be available in the close vicinity for seeds to get started.
This approach seems to work well and we haven't had any failures yet. However, we are about to try this on a 3.5 acre south facing site on very light sandstone derived soil. This is very poor soil which drains almost like a colander, so it is something of a risk putting these orchids in. We shall see if the idea works in principle quite quickly as the healthy plants should put out their over-wintering leaves towards the end of the year. If they don't we will be surprised, but more than that, rather disappointed because the next step would be the introduction of Bee orchids to go with them.
Dr Wilson Wall, grower of orchids. A scientist by inclination and training.