So I guess I’ve telegraphed the punchline there, calling my blog post “orchids underfoot”. Well who cares, I’m in a big hurry to show you what I found today so I’m cutting to the chase. Walking toward a huge bramble thicket on Tottenham marshes, and marvelling at the unidentified warblers who nest there I noticed something small and colourful beside my boot. Crouching down I found a bee orchid, just inches away from where I had ploughed a little path through the grass. And there were two more. And they were beautiful.
Deep in woods loud with birdsong an elegant spike of white flowers glows, a tiny constellation. This is platanthera chlorantha, the Greater Butterfly Orchid. Night scented (it smells of vanilla) I wonder if its brightness also acts to help lure the moths that pollinate it.
Most orchids I’ve seen in the UK have been relatively small and often rather inconspicuous, but this stately plant was nearly a foot tall and vivid against the woodland gloom. We only saw two of these unearthly beauties on our walk, which made them seem very special.
And although there were almost certainly more of these orchis mascular or Early Purple orchids, we found just one bedraggled flower spike pushing up gamely through the ivy and leaf litter.
I was lucky enough to attend a conference in the Wye valley this weekend, which meant a chance to walk in the woods beside Offas Dyke for an hour or two. I found these lovely plants during that short walk. It’s only right for this blog to celebrate what we have here in the UK right now alongside my Nepali show and tell.
For May eve we camped out in a little East Sussex wood; we wanted to be out in the fresh new green and jump over our own mini Beltane fire to bring in summer. Also, the area is renowned for its bluebells, of which I am something of a connoisseur.
The weather was cool and damp, the humidity intensifying the depth of the colours and general sense of lushness and rampant growth. Birdsong seemed astonishingly loud, the only other sounds a constant dripping and the babble of running water. I felt I could almost be in a high altitude cloud forest anywhere in the world if it were not for the familiarity of the trees and vegetation around me.
There are so many wildflowers all blooming together right now, the harsh winter having telescoped the seasons down until the first late winter flowers stand shoulder to shoulder with summer blooms. And everything is giving it’s best after that winter, including the bluebells.
If you are lucky enough to have been in a bluebell wood in full flower you will know well the extraordinary sensual overload that this can provoke. You walk along thinking that you’ve already seen it all, it couldn’t possibly get any bluer. Then the trees open out a little more and they are swimming in an astonishing violet mist of overwhelming voluptuousness. This, I can tell you, you have to experience for yourself.
It’s not just the colour, the scent is vivid too – heady and exotic for something so British, but with a coolness that makes it bearable, like lilies crossed with violets. Sometimes you can smell the flowers long before you see them.
I remember my first sighting of bluebells as a child, and the wonder I felt at their unexpected beauty. My mother wisely told me not to pick a single one, they could never look better in my hand than standing exactly where they were and I understood and did as I was told. Coming back from our walk we saw a family who had not been so wise; they had greedily picked as many as they could carry and were already making disappointed sounds at how swiftly they had wilted. They bore my mothers rage with baffled indifference, but if they learned nothing that day, I had learned plenty.
To read more Nature Notes, why not visit Rambling Woods – in fact, why not write a Nature Notes post of your own?
Whilst doing the seed bomb workshop a couple of weeks ago I discovered a delightful fact – allegedly there are Bee Orchids growing on Tottenham Marshes about a mile and a half from my home, and they are due to start blooming right now. How could I resist such a lure? I’ve been neglecting the marshes lately, so I got on my bike and went to see what I could see.
What I saw, alas, was not Bee Orchids. It hardly mattered though, since I was out and about on the last glorious sunny day of this summer so far, and what I did find was rather wonderful in it’s own right.
Zooming down Coppermill Lane through a dense tunnel of rank vegetation, assaulted by the shrill voices of wrens and the scree of nestlings in every tall shrub I wondered why I don’t do this every day. When I got to the drainage ditches at Springfield marina the air was filled with zipping electric blue sparks of Enallagma Cyathigerum – the Common Blue Damselfly. I sat down beside the water and watched their nuptial dances, and was lucky enough to find these two in their extraordinary lovers embrace. If you view mating damselflies from the right angle their joined bodies make a perfect heart shape. Most bodies of water on a still sunny day will yield views of these lovely creatures right now in the UK, and they are well worth looking for. I also saw a glorious Libellula Depressa – or Broad-bodied Chaser, a male dragonfly with a body the colour of powdered and bottled summer skies. Naturally he teased me by flying from his territorial perch every time I got him into focus but I don’t go on these adventures just for photographic trophies and it’s just as well – I would have been deeply frustrated that day!
After half an hour of happy damselfly and tadpole watching I got back on the bike and rode along the River Lea navigation towpath. Shoals of small fish swarmed in the still water and mute swans fussed over their huge nests, and overhead swallows chattered. I was at Tottenham marshes at last.
It’s not much to look at, perhaps, to some people. A swathe of rank long vegetation sandwiched between a busy road, allotments and a canal and with pylons, gasometers, bus depots and factories looming at it’s edges, it’s not many peoples idea of a wildlife paradise. But it’s truly wild, and this liminal post industrial landscape is where the revolution starts, you mark my words. It’s places like these that are home to undiscovered beauty, the covert reclamation of land by all the other living things besides the human. Of course it’s managed to some extent, but the beauty of places like these is that things slip in under the radar – this kind of land is the sort that will suddenly sprout, unexpectedly, a beautiful flower from seeds or rhizomes that have slept in the earth for years.
The air was thick with the scent of elderflower and pollen tickled my eyes and dusted my feet. The voices of many warblers made one territorial claim after another, each responding to the last in a singing chain, a necklace of song. I wheeled the bike along and searched in vain through the long, tangled vegetation.
Was I sad that I didn’t find any Bee Orchids? Not at all, not when so many other beautiful things crossed my path. The bee orchids got me out of the house and may have been my stated aim, but their coy refusal to show themselves led me to other secrets every bit as marvellous.
After the excitement of “Meet a Moth” day, we set off for a walk in the meadows around Durlston Country Park. This has to be one of the best places in the UK for spotting wildlife, a 280 acre countryside paradise consisting of sea-cliffs, coastal limestone downland, haymeadows, hedgerows and woodland. At this time of year it is glorious, stuffed with birds, rare and unusual plants, butterflies and if you are lucky there are dolphins, whales and basking sharks to be spotted out to sea.
N knew which fields are home to the rare Early Spider Orchid and had seen them on a previous walk, but sadly it was too late in the season and the flowers were all finished. This was barely a dissapointment given the beauty of the meadows, decked out in the brilliant deep blue of Chalk Milkwort and fat, hairy clusters of Kidney Vetch.
The day was hot, but a cool sea breeze and a bit of atmospheric haze kept us from shrivelling up as we walked along the clifftops, watching guillimots on their nests and Kittiwakes zooming about below us on stiff wings. This pair of herring gulls were disarmingly affectionate, displaying to each other within a few feet of us. At one point the male coughed up a nice bit of fish for his mate, but rather ungallantly changed his mind and ate it himself… charming!
On the cliffs nearby we found some Houndstongue, it’s deep red flowers only just beginning to open.
Working our way inland we came across white drifts of Sea Campion.
Into one of the meadows now, where we spotted this brilliant green beetle eating buttercup pollen. It’s name, Cryptocephalus aureolus, seems bigger than the insect its-self.
Crossing some cow pasture, the short fine turf revealed tiny, delicate flowers of Eyebright. Each is only a couple of millimetres across.
Eyebright wasn’t the only thing that the short, grazed turf revealed. As we scoured the meadow for any sign of Early Spider Orchids, an even rarer flower came to light. This tiny Early English Gentian studded the turf with lavender stars, and though my picture is out of focus I still wanted to share this lovely little flower.
We did find some orchids eventually, in a meadow shining yellow with tall waving buttercups and filled with birdsong. But that I will save for another post…