In praise of wild Irish orchids
The mild winter, sunny spring and rain-washed summer have produced swathes of wild orchids across the country. FIONOLA MEREDITHgoes looking for the 84-million-year-old flowers
THERE’S A STRANGE fascination about wild orchids. In part, it’s down to their exotic appearance, the intricate, patterned heads rising high on long slender stems. Orchids are the mysterious aristocrats of the summer meadow: they lack the simple, common innocence of other wild flowers, such as daisies or buttercups. They might smell sublime – bewitching scents of vanilla, cinnamon, honey – or, equally, they might carry the stench of rotting flesh. It depends on which one you meet.
Some varieties are very rare, but this has been a great year for wild Irish orchids. Swathes of common spotted orchids have been springing up across the country. Up close, you notice that every petal carries a delicate tracery of dark pink; at a distance, the orchids form striking drifts of colour, ranging from deep mauve to purest white.
Killard Point, south of Strangford Lough in Co Down, is a prime hunting ground for wild orchids, the more prolific varieties and the rarer specimens. In summer, this remote area of windswept coastal grassland is buzzing with life and colour; skylarks and meadow pipits fly up in surprise as we pass, and the air is full of burnet moths, their red-spotted black wings a haze of pink as they zoom by. I’m here with naturalist Dr Rory Mellon, who works for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. He’s a man who knows and loves his orchids.
Apparently, the wet summer has nothing to do with the fabulous display. Mellon says that many orchids take eight years from germination to flowering. Bad weather can actually deter them. “Some just peek their head out, and if it’s bad they decide to lie low for another year.”
Why, then, are they now blooming in such profusion? Mellon thinks that this year’s “great smattering of orchids” is down to the relatively mild winter and the short burst of warm, sunny weather that came in spring.
The slow journey to flowering is just one of the many odd attributes of this plant family. Some lurk below ground even longer: the twayblade orchid can take up to 15 years to bloom. And even when it does, it lacks the showiness of other varieties. “Most people wouldn’t glance at it twice,” he says, “though we get some orchid enthusiasts here crawling on their hands and knees looking for this fellow.”
Sure enough, when we eventually find it, this orchid is almost indistinguishable from its surroundings. But a closer look reveals an alien-looking plant with weird green, lobed petals. It’s easy to see you how you might get a taste for tracking down these hidden exotics.
Orchids are an ancient species: it’s estimated that they have been in existence for 84 million years. According to the Irish Orchid Society, Ireland has 30 native species, one of which, the Western Marsh Orchid, is unique to the island (the Irish name for orchid is “magairlín”, meaning testicle, which apparently refers to the suggestive shape of the tubers of the native early purple orchid).
Killard Point hosts the rare green-winged orchid, the only place in Northern Ireland where this frilled and spotted purple beauty can be found. It’s also home to the frog orchid, a shy and unassuming character, with flowers that are supposed to resemble trailing frogs’ legs.