When I was growing up, I thought that orchids were exotic flowers, beloved of Victorian ladies in glasshouses and native only to tropical rainforests. It was a revelation to discover that they are found worldwide and that my home county of Kent held more varieties than anywhere else in the UK.
You have to look more closely to appreciate the flowers of our native orchids, but once you do, you will find that they are every bit as enchanting as the showy specimens you might buy from a florist.
The complexity of orchid flowers is due to their intricate relationships with insects, the structures having evolved to tempt insect visitors, sometimes even luring them with the false promise of a mate, in order to achieve pollination.
Darwin was fascinated by the evolutionary relationship between orchids and insects and it is thought that Kent Wildlife Trust’s Downe Bank nature reserve is the Orchis Bank he used to visit to study this phenomenon and that he immortalised in the conclusion of the Origin of the Species.
Although I didn’t need to leave Kent to try out the next of The Wildlife Trusts’ Top UK Wildlife Experiences, traveling in the north of the U.K. gave me the chance to see some species I’d not come across before, and practice my budding botanical skills.
At the moment you can see the pink spikes of the common spotted orchids as you drive past. Last year, Gill’s volunteers counted 26,000 orchids on the Bluebell Hill Roadside Nature Reserve. As well as common spotted orchids, there are pyramidal orchids, man orchids, bee orchids, common twayblade, broad-leafed helleborine and white helleborine.
Not all chalk grassland flowers are as showy as the orchids, you have to look closely to appreciate the beauty of delicate fairy flax, eyebright and milkwort.
Chalk grassland flowers are adapted to grow on dry chalky soil that doesn’t have much in the way of nutrients. When the much of the Downs used to be grazed by sheep, most of the nutrients from grass and other plants went into the sheep, rather than back into the ground, and the orchids and other chalk grassland flowers did well, whilst plants that need a lot of nutrients couldn’t grow very fast. Shrubs and trees got nibbled before they could grow very big, and much of the Downs remained as open grassland.
Although road verges are cut back by highways maintenance to maintain visibility, the usual way to manage them is to mow a short distance from the road from time to time, leaving the cuttings to mulch down in situ, which, in effect, adds a nice composty layer and enriches the soil. Great for nettles and other fast growing plants, which then smother the growth of the more delicate chalk grassland flowers.
Gill and the RNR volunteer team cut the vegetation on the Bluebell Hill verges by hand, across the whole of the site and rake up all the cuttings. It’s very labour intensive, as is counting the thousands of orchid spikes that are the result of this dedicated work!