Friday, 2 December 2011

New Orchid Hybrid found in Wales

 A rare orchid hybrid has been discovered at Kenfig National Nature Reserve, a site already well known for its orchid populations, and for the presence of the largest number of Fen Orchid (Liparis loeselii) plants to be found in the UK. The new orchid hybrid is a cross between the Southern Marsh-orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa) and the Marsh Fragrant-orchid (Gymnadenia densiflora). Three plants were discovered by Michael Clark in 2009, and their identity was confirmed and reported in the Botanical Society of the British Isles's journal in June 2011. The name of the orchid is Dactylodenia ettlingeriana and recognises the work on British Orchids by Derek M Turner Ettlinger.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Last Blast for 2011 - a visit to The Burren

Epipactis atrorubens, early August, The Burren
And so to our final orchid hunting trip of 2011 - The Burren. We have visited this marvellous place many times over the years, but never as late at this. Our ambitions were to find Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) and Dark-red Helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens). In the event we did far better.

Our first stop was on the limestone pavement above Ballyvaughan where I had previously seen gone-over plants which I was convinced were ex-Dark-red Helleborines, sure enough, we found some in very good condition despite the lateness of our visit. I am sure the late flowering of this and many other orchids we found on our visit was due in no small part to the cold, wet summer that we in West Wales and Ireland have suffered this year. We also found many Fragrant Orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea) in excellent condition. The powerful scent of this lovely flower meant that we didn’t have to try too hard to find them – it was absolutely ravishing, and there were numerous plants still in full flower throughout The Burren.

Fragrant Orchid with a white Common Spotted-orchid

We moved on to Fanore and Black Head on the coast of The Burren in search of Spiranthes spiralis. We found small groups in a very localised area close to the public car park at Fanore dunes.  There were also many  Fragrant and Pyramidal Orchids flowering there, too.  On our way back to Ballyvaughan we found several  pure white Dactylorhiza fuchsii-type orchids.  I can only conclude that these were very late-flowering Common Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza O’kellyi) plants.

Frog Orchids, rare and hard to find
As we left the Burren we decided to make one final stop to one of our favourite places ‘up on the top’ between Ballyvaughan and Corofin. Considering the lateness in the season the number of wildflower species still in flower was amazing – Harebells, Bloody Cranesbill, Mountain Avens, Self Heal, Lady’s Bedstraw and numerous others were out in numbers comparable with springtime. Again we found many Fragrant Orchids, but the icing on the cake was  finding  a solitary Frog Orchid (Dactylorhiza viridis) growing on one of the grassy tussocks.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Home Front - a visit to Anglesey in North Wales

Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchid (Dactylorhiza traunsteineroides) flowering at Cors Bodeilio in Anglesey in North Wales

Closer to home in the UK we have had some wonderful orchid experiences this year. We took a group of enthusiasts to visit the Anglesey Fens National Nature Reserves (NNR) and one of Wales’s largest expanses of sand dunes in Newborough Warren NNR in North Wales in mid-June. Both these habitats are orchid-rich: Newborough Warren has carpets of Marsh Helleborines (Epipactis palustris) in July as well as good numbers of Early Marsh-orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata), Northern Marsh-orchids (Dactylorhiza purpurella) and Dune Helleborines (Epipactis dunensis) all of which can be seen at more or less the same time depending on how the spring weather has played out. The Anglesey Fens are even more surprising as a result of their unique characteristics – basically peat bogs which are surrounded by ‘necklaces’ of limestone rocks on their outer edges through which water flows into the peat. These springs pick up lime from the rocks which in turn raises the alkalinity level of the marsh creating a habitat that supports unusual combinations of acid-tolerant wildflowers growing side by side with species normally associated with chalk substrates. It is quite a surprise to see Lesser Butterfly-orchids (Platanthera bifolia) and Fly Orchids (Ophrys insectifera) with their roots submerged growing next to Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) and Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris)! Another rare orchid species that grows in the Anglesey Fens is the Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchid (Dactylorhiza traunsteineroides). They were pretty much past their flowering time by the time we visited but we did find a couple of decent specimens to photograph. Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchid is usually the first of the marsh orchids to flower which can be a handy tip for indentification although its appearance is really quite distinctive. It is often found flowering well before the so-called Early Marsh-orchid which doesn’t put in an appearance until well into May.
The Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera) also flowers at Cors Bodeilio in Anglesey

Our visits to these wonderful nature reserves were greatly enhanced by our guides. The Senior Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) Wardens, Graham Williams (Newborough Warren) and Les Colley (Anglesey Fens) know these special habitats inside out and ensured that we saw many plants, insects and birds that we might otherwise have missed – and have missed on previous visits!

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Slovenian Wild Orchids

An Alpine Meadow in Slovenia

Our second trip for 2011 was the realisation of a long-held ambition to visit Slovenia. The wildflowers were stupendous and far, far better than I have imagined in my wildest flights of fancy!

Coralroot Orchid in a relatively open position on a roadside in Slovenia

We went in mid June and stayed in Bled right beside the famous lake. Although one of the tourist ‘hotspots’ Bled never once felt over-crowded, and even if it had, a very short drive outside the town takes you into the wildflower meadows for which Slovenia is so rightly famous. We did a lot of travelling around in search of various species that we really wanted to see, but also enjoyed some of the wildflower walks recommended to us by the very helpful tourist information office in Bohinj. For a full report on this trip please go to the first-nature webpage on the subject:

Bird's-nest Orchid growing with Butterfly Orchids

Regrettably we were too early to see Gymnadenia rhellicani (Black Vanilla Orchid) and Gymnadenia rubra (Red vanilla Orchid). These orchids were previously called Nigritella nigra ssp. rhellicani and Nigritella rubra respectively. We also failed to find Lady’s-slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) despite being there at the right time for it to be flowering. Species we did find, and in great abundance, were Common Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), Bird’s-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis), Sword-leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia), White Helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium), Red Helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra), Dark-red Helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens), Lesser Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera bifolia), Common Twayblade (Neottia ovata). In smaller numbers we found Coral-root Orchid (Corallorrhiza trifida) and Burnt Orchid (Orchis ustulata). Both Chalk Fragrant-orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea) and Gymnadenia odoratissima grow together in the dry Alpine meadows. This list just scratches the surface of the vast number of orchid species it’s possible to see in Slovenia and we are really hoping that we’ll be able to return again soon to see many more.

The one and only - a single Military Orchid on a roadside in Slovenia

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Spring in the Algarve

The Algarve coast in springtime - picture Rob Petley-Jones

It seems amazing that my last post was written in contemplation of the forthcoming orchid season and now, here we are, well on the way to the end of the season with many trip reports to catch up with.

Our first trip this year was to the by now familiar territory of the Algarve in Portugal, but it was a bit too late to see many of the species which frequently come into flower at the end of February or the beginning of March. Nevertheless we went to walk in some new places and found some good sites for a number of species that have been ‘lost ‘ to us due to the onslaught of development which continues to destroy so many wildlife habitats, albeit slightly more slowly in the current economic climate. Given the profound nature of the recession in Portugal, and in other parts of Europe, it is difficult to understand what drives the development of so many new sites when earlier projects have been abandoned and languish empty with rank weeds taking over where rare and beautiful wildflowers once flourished.

One new spot we visited was the freshwater spring of Fonte Benemola which lies behind the quaint walled town of Querenca. The area is predominantly limestone and so many orchid species grow there including Ophrys lusitanica the rather rare and strange relative of the Mirror Orchid (Ophrys speculum). Other species we saw included the Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophorum), The Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax), the Yellow Bee Orchid (Ophrys lutea) and Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). Another lovely Algarve wildflower grows there in far greater numbers than we have seen before – Scilla peruviana – a lovely, pyramid-shaped, purple scilla which is one of my favourites. The other limestone hill Rocha da Pena which is close by has many of the same species of orchids flowering there.

We saw more Bee Orchids than usual in the Algarve this spring.

One species that we saw far more of on this trip was the Bee Orchid – Ophrys apifera. This was in part due to our later than usual arrival in the Algarve, but we also saw them growing in large colonies on the roadside verges right out to the west of the area. We had really only seen this species in Boca do Rio just west of Lagos, but these ‘new’ plants were much further out and we had not seen the plants at Boca do Rio for several years. The Bee Orchid despite being one of the species which actively extends its territory once it becomes established is nevertheless an unreliable flowrer and will often disappear from locations only to reappear several years later and sometimes in greater numbers than had previously been observed.

Anacamptis champagneuxii photographed near Monchique

Other notable species from this trip were the small and localised groups of Dense-flowered Orchid (Orchis intacta) on the roadside verges up in the mountains beyond Monchique. These are not easy to spot but are very close to the summit of Foia and are on the left hand side of the road on the way back down to Monchique. Also growing in the same place were two other species that we had not seen there before: Early-purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) (the considerable drop in temperature up at Foia would account for this early-flowering species being there at the end of April), and also Anacamptis champagneuxii – the subspecies of the Green-winged Orchid (Anacamptis morio). As we had only found a few plants of the latter in a small colony between Silves and Monchique until this trip, this new location was a source of great satisfaction and we took lots of photographs – just as well as they had mysteriously disappeared when we returned to bid them farewell before leaving for home a few days later.

Friday, 18 March 2011

At the time of writing we are just beginning to see the first signs of spring in Wales, with temperatures reaching the dizzy heights of 16C briefly on 17th March. Celandines, snowdrops and primroses are coming into flower, and we know it will not be long until the main body of the spring pageant of other wildflowers will rush to catch up.

Early Purple Orchids flowering in Wales

We can expect to see our first wild orchids flowering any time from mid-April onwards, the very first being the Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula). In a good year these lovely flowers can appear before the end of April, but they may be a little late this year due to the bitterly cold weather that we (and they) endured during November, December and January. This orchid is a beautiful flower, which often grows to 40cm in height. It has dark, glossy green leaves with dark spots, and its flower is pinkish-purple although some are a really deep purple colour. It is also not unknown for completely white flowers to occur, and we have seen several in Wales close to where we live. Its favoured habitats are woodland edges, and it also grows in neutral to calcareous grasslands. In Pembrokeshire in Wales it can also often be seen on roadside verges. One of its strengths and the reason why this orchid has fared better than many other species in Britain may be its tolerance of different soil types and habitats.

Green-winged Orchids flowering in Portugal in April

Early Purple Orchids have been even more abundant in past times in the UK, and they are listed as having up to 90 local names. The flowers have a very sweet scent when they first open but are described as smelling of tom cat as they age.

Generally speaking it is hard to confuse the Early Purple Orchid with any other species since it flowers so well ahead of the others, but in some places it can be accompanied, or closely followed by the Green-winged Orchid (Anacamptis morio).The Green-winged Orchid is much less common in the UK, however, and is in serious decline due to the destruction of its habitats. It is a flower of old, unimproved meadows, and this habitat is becoming rarer and rarer in these days of intensive agriculture. In certain parts of Europe it is a different story and Green-winged Orchids can occur in vast numbers. We have seen them in Portugal, Italy and France in considerable numbers. One of the best places in the UK to see these lovely orchids, which occur in a large range of colours from white, pale pink to deep purple, is Bristol Waterworks! Strange as this may seem, they have a wonderful area of grassland in front of their main building that is quite literally covered with Green-winged Orchids in late April.

Thanks to our many friends and contacts in Portugal we are already getting reports of the first orchids to appear there - so far we have been told that Sword-leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) is flowering in the eastern Algarve, and of the appearance of leaves of Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). Memories of our many springtime visits tell us that there will be many other species flowering by now, too - the flowering of the Mirror Orchid (Ophrys speculum), the Bumblebee Orchid (Ophrys bombyliflora), Yellow Bee Orchid (Ophrys lutea) and Ophrys fusca should be in full swing.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Dead of Summer!

One of the many faces of Ophrys fusca

Every autumn we run off to sunny Portugal to see and photograph the mind-boggling variety of fungi that can be found throughout the forests and in the hills above the Algarve. These visits usually take place in November and so there is not much to report on the flower front although, even at that time of year, signs of spring are starting to become apparent.

When visiting Portugal it's useful to bear in mind that plant lifecycles are operating on a very different time schedule from northern European countries: high summer in the Algarve is as dead as the depths of winter in Northern Europe, and when it is over, the land is completely parched and covered with dead, brown vegetation. The first rains in autumn produce almost immediate signs of spring growth - the leaves of Bermuda Buttercup start appearing in October and November followed closely by their flowers in December. Other confusing floristic combinations such as Friar’s Cowl and Autumn Crocuses flowering together lie in wait for the observant; and along the roadsides, vivid green leaves of Common Asphodel vie with the plentiful fungi for our attention. The asphodel flowers will not appear until the New Year – or maybe late December in some exceptionally warm years.

And similarly we have often found fungi that we would see in late summer in the UK growing alongside spring flowers in the Algarve. Delicious summer Chanterelles, which appear in August in southern England, can be found in Portugal in February, when spring is really gathering pace.

The annual race to be the first orchid to bloom in the Algarve is well underway by November and December. Most frequently in recent years the winner has been the Yellow Bee Orchid, Ophrys lutea, closely followed by the Bumblebee Orchid, Ophrys bombyliflora, and the Mirror Orchid, Ophrys speculum. But, always lurking and well hidden in scrub and brush, is Ophrys fusca, whose many faces make it the King of Confusion for those who like absolute certainty in identification. The 'been there, seen that' orchid twitchers amongst us have met their nemesis with this orchid. It's about this time of year that I pick up my well-thumbed copy of Pierre Delforge's magnum opus,'The Orchids of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East', determined that once and for all I will go through my hundreds of pictures of Ophrys fusca and identify each one with absolute certainty using the pictures in the book. So what else is a sad orchid fan supposed to do in winter? I shall fail as comprehensively this year as I have in every preceding one, but I will as always be convinced that, as a result of my studies, I shall be absolutely equipped to identify accurately all the examples of Ophrys fusca that I will see next spring - a confidence that will vanish as quickly as the early spring mist that hangs over some of our favourite orchid sites close to the sea in the Algarve!

Another of the many faces of Ophrys fusca