Herefordshire orchids

Early purple orchids (Chris Harris)

Orchids are one of the largest families of plants in the world, with around 25,000 different species recorded. Britain has over 50 species of wild orchids, of which around 18 occur in Herefordshire. Some are relatively common while others, such as lady’s slipper and ghost orchid, are extremely rare. All are protected by law.

One of the earliest orchids to appear is bird’s-nest orchid Neottia nidus-avis, which flowers between April and July. The plant grows up to 25cm tall and produces a cluster of large brown flowers. The stem is often light brown or white and has no leaves. This unusual plant does not produce chlorophyll and so can not photosynthesise it’s own food. Instead, it is totally reliant on it’s relationship with soil fungi. All orchids rely to some extent on soil fungi for food, either as germinating seeds, seedlings or adult plants. The orchid roots and fungi form a relationship, called a orchid micorrhiza, which involves the fungi colonising the plant roots. This allows the orchid to derive some or, in the case of bird’s-nest orchid, all of its nutrients and energy from the fungi.

Also flowering between April and July is early purple orchid Orchis mascula. This plant is found in a wide variety of habitats, including open meadows and woodland. It produces a tall stem, sometimes 50-60cm, and a loose cluster of 6 to 20 flowers, ranging in colour from pink to purple. The lance-like leaves are grouped together at the base of the plant and are often mottled with purplish spots. The flower is pollinated by a range of bees and wasps, although it produces no nectar. The name mascula is derived from the Latin for ‘male’ and refers to the testicle-like shape of the tubers. In the Middle East and Turkey the tubers are ground to make a sweet nutritious flour called salep, widely used in drinks, cereals, bread-making and traditional medicines.

Green-winged orchid Anacamptis morio (April to June) can sometimes be confused with early purple orchid. It is distinguished by the parallel green veins on each side of the purple flower hood, from which it gets its name. This beautiful orchid grows almost exclusively in old, unimproved meadows and is seriously threatened by loss of habitat.

Greater butterfly orchid Plantanthera chlorantha flowers between May and July. The plant produces a pair of broad, shiny, rounded leaves at the base of the stem, which grows up to 25cm tall. The greenish-white flowers form a loose spike and have a vanilla scent, which is particularly strong at night. Unlike their more colourful cousins, butterfly orchids may be easily overlooked.

Also flowering in May is common twayblade Neottia ovata, a close relative of bird’s-nest orchid. This plant produces a pair of broad leaves close to the ground, hence it’s common name, and a tall stem (between 20-60cm). The flowers are lime green and vaguely humanoid in shape. Like the other less brightly coloured orchids, it can be difficult to spot, although it is relatively common and can occur in large numbers.

Appearing towards the end of May are the first flower-spikes of common spotted orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii (flowers May to August). This is the UK’s commonest orchid, found in a wide variety of habitats and quick to colonise new sites. The plant produces narrow spotted leaves at the base of the stem, which grows to 30cm tall. The flowers form a tight cluster and range in colour from white to pink with purple markings. A similar, closely related species, is heath spotted orchid Dactylorhiza maculata, which prefers more acidic soils, but is often found growing alongside common spotted orchid.

Flowering at around the same time is pyramidal orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis (June to August). The plant produces narrow lance-like leaves at the base of the stem and grows up to 30cm, although occasionally taller. It produces a tight cluster of pink or purple flowers in a pyramidal shape. The flowers are specially adapted to be pollinated by butterflies and moths. Like the early purple orchid, the tubers of pyramidal orchids are ground to make a sweet flour. In England during the 17th and 18th centuries, before coffee became popular, the flour was used to make a sweet drink called saloop.

One of the most spectacular orchids, both for its size (up to 70cm tall) and striking purple flowers, is the southern marsh orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa (mid June to late July). It is often found growing in marshes, fens and damp meadows – habitats that is sometimes shares with fragrant orchid Gymnadenia conopsea and marsh helleborine Epipactis, both of which are rare in Herefordshire.

Orchids noted for their beauty and specialisation of form are those that mimic insects to encourage pollination. Of these fly orchid Ophyris insectifera is very rare in Herefordshire and being quite slender and growing in dappled shade is hard to spot. It is most likely on the limestone of the Doward and would be of great interest and should be reported if found. More likely to be seen and often turning up in new places is bee orchid Ophris apifera. As the name suggests, the plant has evolved to mimic bees, an example of sexual mimicry, although most plants in the UK are thought to be self-pollinating.

Herefordshire’s rarest orchid is the ghost orchid, which has only been sighted a handful of times since it was first recorded in Britain, in Herefordshire, in 1854. The last recorded sighting was in September 2009 but before that it hadn’t been seen since 1982. Finding this or even a fly orchid would ensure your name is long remembered in the record books.

Please remember: all native wild plants are protected by law and must not be picked or uprooted. Please leave them for others to enjoy.

By Chris Harris



Bluebells (Eden Tanner)

Spring brings the spectacle of carpets of bluebells throughout our native woodlands, something that is special to Britain and nowhere else. They have long been admired and people will travel miles to see them, indeed there were at least two “Bluebell Trains”, one of which still runs in East Sussex, which took townsfolk out into the countryside to view one of our natural wonders.

Though strongly associated with woods, our bluebells need two things to survive and thrive: humidity and continuity of habitat, both of which are supplied by woodlands. However, bluebells can also be found in hedgerows and bracken covered pastures indicating they are relics of woodlands lost. Most extraordinary though are bluebells at the Lizard which grow amongst rocks and boulders, only feet from the surf!

Bluebells can be found in a whole range of colours from deep violet blue through to pink or white, and they reproduce by seed or bulb offshoots. Though tolerant of picking, they are very susceptible to trampling and grazing as damage to their long strap-like leaves means they are unable to replenish their underground food store needed for next years growth.

Amongst the bluebells are two white companions in spring. Wood anemone is a nearly universal plant found throughout the UK except for the Shetlands and Orkney. An ancient woodland indicator species, the wood anemone rarely spreads by seeds which have a low fertility and viability, but spreads at a snail pace through root growth, as little as 6 foot in 100 years! Like the bluebell, when it is found in meadows and hedgerows it is referred to as a “woodland ghost”. And wood sorrel, perhaps one of our most delicate wild flowers with bright green shamrock-like leaves which have been used in green sauces, and so it used to be grown in kitchen gardens.

For all they are widespread and an ancient part of our native flora there is surprisingly little folklore about, or medicinal uses for, these three stalwarts. Bluebells were used as a diuretic, but they are somewhat toxic which led to their other common use: that of a glue in bookbinding as the toxic properties were found to discourage silverfish!

There are concerns for the future of bluebells, particularly in the light of predicted climate change. It may be that one of the perceived threats to bluebells, the spread and hybridisation of Spanish bluebells, may be the saving of our bluebell woods: vigorous hybrids maybe able to withstand warmer drier conditions that our natives would succumb to.

Another threat comes from the recent interest in “wildlife gardening” and the demand for native bluebell bulbs resulting in woodlands being stripped of bulbs both legally and illegally.



Mistletoe (C Harris)

Herefordshire is in the heart of mistletoe country, but it really only comes into its own in the winter when all the leaves have dropped from the trees that host them. They are so ubiquitous in the county that I swear they even grow on telegraph poles!


Early spring woodland flowers

Wood anemones, Frith Wood (Chris Harris)

The arrival of spring is heralded by a spectacular display of wildflowers, which culminates in late April/early May when the bluebells come into flower and the woodland floor becomes a carpet of blue. The appearance of so many wildflowers in early spring is part of an annual race to flower and set seed before the trees come into leaf and the canopy closes over, shading the woodland floor.


Wild Daffodils

Daffodils, Queenswood Dymock (Chris Harris)

During early Spring, swathes of wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) spread their yellow blaze through meadows, woodland and field margins. They reach their greatest concentrations on the Herefordshire / Gloucestershire border around Newent, Dymock and Ledbury; ‘the wild daffodil centre of England’. But the wild daffodil is also patchily distributed throughout Herefordshire.