In praise of wild Irish orchids

Wed, Aug 1, 2012, 01:00

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.

The bee orchid, which blooms at Killard in June, and can also be found on the grassland dunes of North Bull Island in Dublin, is especially striking. Each exquisite pink flower gives the illusion that a female bee is diving headlong into it. Even more cleverly, the petals also smell like female bees: irresistible to the male bee, tempting him to try desperately to mate. In his excitement, the male becomes covered in pollen, which he then carries to the next orchid he visits.

Yet for all the elaborate display, this sexual luring is not strictly necessary; it turns out that bee orchids are mostly self-pollinated. Another curious orchid mystery.

Spring and summer can be measured out by the appearance of different orchid varieties, each one in close succession. By the end of the summer, the dust-like seeds of all the orchids will have ripened and been blown in every direction by the wind. The leaves wither, and the plant retreats below ground, lying dormant in tubers until spring comes around again.

Rory Mellon explains that orchids have a strange, symbiotic relationship with soil fungus. “They work together; the orchid seeds are really tiny, and they don’t have enough energy reserves on their own to grow. So the fungus feeds the orchid seed, providing it with essential nutrients, and later on, the fungus feeds off sugars in the root tips of the plants.”

This happy co-operation works particularly well on old, undisturbed soil, where a vast fungal mat has had the chance to build up and thicken over many centuries. That’s why ploughing or excavating the soil can wipe out these rare, elaborate flowers at a stroke; they need the fungus to survive.

When I visit Killard, the spotted orchids are just on the wane, and now it’s the turn of the pyramidal orchid; an eye-catching deep pink spike, attractive to moths and butterflies, which feed on the nectar at the base of the flower. The red-spotted burnet moths find the pyramidal orchid irresistible, and they’re one of its main pollinators.

What’s more, they arrive at just the right time. Taking hold of a piece of long grass, Mellon points out the black moth emerging slowly from its chrysalis, which has been anchored firmly to the stem. All around us, thousands of other burnets are doing the same.

This is one of the surprising bonuses of orchid-hunting. “If you get down on your hands and knees, you come across all kinds of other amazing plants and creatures too. You just need to get your eyes up close,” says Rory Mellon. He shows me field pansies, eyebright, vetch, and the sweet-scented ladies bedstraw; tiny wild gems all too easily overlooked.

“But for me, it’s the orchids that stand out,” says Mellon. “The architecture of the plant, its variety and beauty, never fails to take my breath away.”

Where to find them

Native Irish orchids are usually found in undisturbed localities, where the soil is low in nutrients and where there is little competing vegetation. The Burren, in Co Clare, with its pockets of wet, peaty soil alongside fissured limestone, has a huge diversity of orchid species. Other great orchid-spotting sites include: North Bull Island in Dublin; Mullaghmore, Co Sligo; Raven Point, Co Wexford; Lady Dixon Park in Belfast and Killard Point in Co Down.

Source: Irish Orchid Society

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