Wildlife: Orchids

Lady's slipper orchid

Lady's slipper orchid - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson focuses on one of our most exotic native plants that may be making a return to the county!

Lady's slipper orchid

Lady's slipper orchid - Credit: Archant

Developing an interest in the beauty of wild plants cannot be a bad thing. In fact I could argue that if Derbyshire had far more folk committed to the welfare of wild flowers we might not have lost so many meadows and sites that we are now trying to protect or even recreate.

In the past it didn’t take much for a healthy fascination for wild things to spill over into an overzealousness that created problems we are still dealing with today. The Victorians lived in an amazing age. New transport systems allowed them to explore further afield, and increased wealth saw many become passionate collectors. Certain groups of animals and plants were heavily targeted and in the plant kingdom orchids and ferns were prize subjects.

The Duke of Devonshire back then had both the wealth and time to indulge creating a collection of orchids at Chatsworth. On one overseas expedition funded by the Duke, 80 new species were discovered. Collecting also occurred much closer to home and was encouraged because it linked science, beauty and the creator into one hobby. There are 56 or so species of wild orchid in the UK. Many are small and difficult to find but one is large, incredibly showy and has the charisma of a Hollywood star. Yes, I am talking about a plant, but what a glorious plant – the Lady’s Slipper orchid. This queen of the British flora was never common but did occur across parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, County Durham and a few sites in Derbyshire. It loves limestone and can grow in shady woodlands. When and if you ever see one, it’s difficult to believe that this is a true native. It looks as if it would be far more at home gracing the floor of some distant, tropical rainforest. And this is its Achilles heel. It is so stunningly attractive that the Victorians collected it to extinction and by 1917 it was declared extinct in the UK. All seemed lost until in 1930 a botanist discovered a single specimen in Yorkshire. This individual plant has been guarded ever since and reading about the exploits of these early botanists almost seems like a John Le Carre novel. There is another specimen that is well known in the Lakes but this long-lived plant, also guarded round the clock, is actually an import from Austria. Even so, this individual has been dug up and stolen in the dead of night twice. Luckily, both times a small part of the underground rhizome (like a woody root) was left and the plant recovered.

Protecting the single plant was vital but the real future was in reintroducing it into its former sites across Northern England. This sounds simple but propagating orchids is incredibly difficult. The Yorkshire plant was self-pollinated every year and the minute dust-like seeds were collected. Luckily, in 1983 Lord and Lady Sainsbury started to fund a project at Kew to discover how to propagate native orchids and re-establish the rare ones back into the wild. The Lady’s Slipper was the star attraction of this project. The most difficult part was to get the germinated seedlings to grow well. In the wild, orchid seedlings have a fungus that lives with them which helps them absorb nutrients and water and so grow well. Without this fungus the seedlings struggle desperately. It took quite a few years before Kew cracked how to get the seedlings to prosper and now thousands of young plants have been planted back into their former sites and new sites that look ideal.

Many that have been planted out have failed, though there was great excitement when the first reintroduced plant flowered in 2000. Another difficulty has arisen that modern science is now helping to solve. Are the plants true native British ones or not? Gene sequencing is now done to ensure that all reintroduced Lady’s Slippers are the real article.

So how does Derbyshire fair in all this? The major part of the Lady’s Slipper’s range is slightly north of us but there is sound evidence that this stunning flower did grow near Matlock in the past. Unfortunately, though understandably, most of the new plants are planted out under a cloak of secrecy. It is a fact that there are a few sites in Derbyshire where this plant now flowers. In some areas such as Gait Barrow Nature Reserve in Cumbria the policy is to plant so many that they become common and collecting becomes pointless, or if the odd plant goes it’s not a disaster. This has not occurred in Derbyshire so the sites that have been chosen are secret. Hopefully, as these wild plants set seed themselves and with increased education, we may get to the situation where you come across one on a walk through the dales, or are allowed to visit this queen of the British plant world on an open weekend. We can only dream!

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Three spring wildflowers of the Peak District

Wild Arum or Cuckoo Pint or Lords & Ladies (a few politer names of the very many it has been called). Commonly found in the shade of woods, walls and hedges, the wild arum flowers in spring and its leaves are poisonous. By late summer the leaves and ‘flower’ wither to leave orange-red berries, which are also poisonous, at the top of the stalk. They sprout from a tuber which was an early source of laundry starch and in the past was baked and ground to provide a type of arrowroot.

Dog Violet. ‘Early’ and ‘Common’ are two of several species of violet that have ‘dog’ as part of their name. This seems to be taken as some sort of insult because it is unscented and therefore inferior. Common dog violet occurs in woods and limestone pasture and on the Dark Peak’s moorland grasslands and flowers primarily from late April to June – later than the early dog violet. The related, scented, Sweet Violet (shorter stem, darker flower) is found mostly in the White Peak and has been used in cosmetics and for herbal medicines.

Ramsoms (or wild or bear’s garlic), comes from the Old English for wild garlic ‘hramsan’. Found in large clumps, commonly under trees fringing streams – a spring day driving with the windows open down the Via Gellia or towards Cromford, or walking along the Cromford Canal, and you’re sure to smell it – most obvious by its smell and flowers in April and May. Doesn’t produce bulbs like garlic and but its leaves, which have a delicate taste, make a good addition to salads and soups and it has been used in recipes by celebrity chefs Glynn Purnell and Paul Rankin.

Cowslip, Early Purple Orchid, Wood Anemone and, of course, Bluebell are other delights to watch out for.

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust Diary Dates for May


Guided walks & family activities:

1st, 2-4.30pm, Wildlife Walk in the Wye Valley, Miller’s Dale Station

4th, 10.30-4pm, ‘Learning to Love Lichens’, Wildlife Discovery Room, Ashbourne

4th, 7.30-10pm, Family Bat Safari, Wildlife Discovery Room

6th, 10.30-3.30pm, ‘Bumblebees for Beginners’, Whistlestop Centre

11th, 2-4pm, ‘Bird-watching Bingo’, Wildlife Discovery Room

13th, 7-9pm, Visit to Hillbridge Wood Nature Reserve, Taxal

17th, 8.30-12.30pm, ‘Summer Bird Son’g at Carsington Water

18th, 10-2pm, Guided Walk at Woodside Nature Reserve,

Reserve work party:

11th, 11-4pm, Spring Wood

Nature Tots:

12th, 10-11.30am, Frog on a Log, Wildlife Discovery Room