Bee orchid in the southern part of the Forest
Orchids have been described as ‘Mother Nature’s masterpiece’ and if you’re lucky enough to encounter one on a visit to the Heart of England Forest it’s easy to see why. You’ll have to be sharp-eyed to spot one, but if you do there are few more rewarding woodland wonders.
What is an orchid?
Orchids represent one of the most diverse, beautiful and intricately evolved flowering plant groups. Of the 25,000 or so species of orchid worldwide, around 52 have been recorded in the British Isles. All native orchids found here are terrestrial, meaning that they live their lives on the ground, while elsewhere in the world many species grow on the limbs of trees.
Like any family, there are specific traits that identify orchids. Firstly, orchids are perennials, flowering each year usually at a specific time – in Britain this is always the spring and summer. They have fleshy roots or tubers similar to a bulb, with unstalked and undivided leaves. A large number of our British species also form a leaf rosette which is a circular arrangement of leaves lying close or flat to the ground.
Some species, such as the bee orchid, grow new leaves during the autumn which sit above ground through the winter, whereas others only appear above ground during the spring shortly before flowering. The flowers of an orchid are carried in a spike, with each symmetrical flower consisting of three sepals and three petals. One petal is usually highly modified in form, size and colour and this is called the labellum or lip.
A rare beauty
While the British Isles host both Mediterranean and sub-arctic species of orchid, many are very rare, requiring very specific conditions in fragile habitats, and are protected by law. The disappearance of ancient woodland over the last century has played a major role in the declining orchid population, so here at the Heart of England Forest we pride ourselves in continuing to provide a home for many species of this delicate and delightful flower.
Here’s our guide to a few of the orchid species to be found in and around the Forest and where and when you might spy them….
Green winged orchid: Usually flowering in May, walkers may be lucky enough to spot these small flowers among the grass in Dorothy’s Wood. Clustered around a single spike, the flowers tend to be pink or purple with three lobes. Their name is derived from the hood formed by the sepals above the flower which appear lined with green veins. The leaves are narrow and pointed and do not have spots on them unlike other common grassland orchids.
Pyramidal orchid: Another orchid to be found in Dorothy’s Wood, these often flower a little later, in June. The name comes from the bright pink pyramid-shaped cluster of flowers at the top of its stem. They like chalk grassland and warmth, so look out for them in sunny spots.
Southern marsh orchid: Also flowering in June, these are found in the southern areas of the Heart of England Forest. Their leaves are usually folded along their length and arranged as a rosette when close to flowering. The flowering spike may have one or two bract-like leaves along the stem and the flower can be greyish green, grass green or yellowish green. It may also have fine spots or blotches.
Common spotted orchid: Another one to be found in the southern end of the Forest in June, as its name suggests it is quite widespread in the UK. Often growing along hedgerows or in woodland, its name derives from the dark purple spots on its leaves, while it has lighter pink or white flowers. It often grows in small clusters so can be easier to identify.
Bee orchid: Possessing remarkable markings, these can be found on Forest land at Honeybourne, usually flowering in June. As its name suggests, it has an astonishingly realistic bee-like flower, designed to attract pollinators. The downside for the flower is that, in the UK, the type of bee it is trying to entice in does not exist, so the bee orchid has to self-pollinate.
So, keep your eyes peeled the next time you visit, and you may be lucky enough to spot one of these rare orchids. But please don’t pick these wildflowers – leave them to be enjoyed by all.
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