Strange beauty

PUBLISHED: 15:58 03 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013

Get down on your knees and admire Shropshire's most splendid, exotic and fascinating flower - the orchid - says Shropshire Wildlife Trust Development Manager John Hughes

Get down on your knees and admire Shropshire's most splendid, exotic and fascinating flower - the orchid - says Shropshire Wildlife Trust Development Manager John Hughes

Think of a rare and exotic flower. I'll bet it's an orchid. Like truffles and mink, orchids are associated with opulence and glamour. And quite rightly. They are devilish tricky to grow, live in very bizarre locations and have implausibly showy and intricate flowers. So where should we look for them? Up the Orinoco, maybe Tahiti, or should we try Much Wenlock?
Yes, there are plenty of orchids in Shropshire. Thousands of blooms can be found all over the county every year. Most of our native orchids may lack the blousy grandeur of their tropical cousins, but they hold surprise and delight for anyone who bothers to examine them a little more closely.

Difficult plants of difficult places
Here comes the science bit. It's worth investigating the biology of orchids as that is what, in part, gives them their mystique. Orchids are plants like any other - green leaves that make food from sunlight, colourful flowers to attract pollinating insects and seed pods full of (you guessed it) seeds. However, unlike dandelions and docks, orchids won't grow just anywhere. Typically you'll find them where there is sparse other vegetation, or in 'difficult' places.
Orchids are not great competitors; they are just not very aggressive growers. Rather they have adapted to fill niches where few other plants will grow, this is often because there are hardly any nutrients. Limestone is a classic place to find Shropshire orchids (for example, on Wenlock Edge). Bare rock and spindly grasses leave plenty of room for orchids to gain a foothold.

Orchids ? fungi
There is so little nutrient where many orchids grow that they have evolved to rely on fungi to act as roots to help them absorb what little food does exist. Orchid seed is like dust. Each seed is so small it cannot successfully germinate without the help of fungi. Now it becomes clear why they are nigh on impossible for even the most skilful gardener to grow.
Some orchids are decidedly weird in their appearance. The birds nest orchid is one of several that has no green chlorophyll in its leaves. Instead it is a saprophyte that survives by extracting nutrients from decomposing plant material, again with the help of fungi. A real rarity, sadly not found in Shropshire, is the ghost orchid. This pallid flower spike poking through the gloom of beech woods is certainly aptly named.

Frogs, bees and copulation
The flowers of a number of native orchids bear a resemblance to other creatures. Frog, lady, spider, monkey and lizard orchids are all named because of this likeness. Relatively common in Shropshire is the bee orchid. Its flower resembles a bumblebee. This is no coincidence. Its appearance and even its smell have evolved to attract male bumblebees to copulate with this mimic flower and so pollinate it. Fortunately the same is not true for the monkey orchid!

While we're on the sordid subject of sex, there is another link. Several species, notably the early purple orchid, have two distinct bulbs at the base of their stem when unearthed. This naturally led country-folk to imbue them with Viagra-like powers and, to this day, the scientific name for both an orchid and a testicle is orchis.

A close look
But please feel free to ignore all my fascinating facts, too much knowledge can spoil nature. The very best thing about our orchids has to be the simple beauty of their flowers. When you find an orchid (for they really are more numerous than people believe) don't be shy. Get down on all fours and take a really close look. They are every bit as splendid as those on sale in florists. And remember these 'delicate' plants have adapted over millennia to thrive in distinctly challenging conditions in nature.

Where to see wild orchids
Wild orchids are found throughout Shropshire, often in surprising places. As well as taking a walk along Wenlock Edge, keep your eyes open when you go shopping. In early July you may be rewarded with the sight of hundreds of bee orchids growing outside the entrance to the Wrekin Retail Park off junction 6 of the M54.

For a more traditional nature ramble why not try a visit to Shropshire Wildlife Trust's nature reserves at Llanymynech or Llynclys near Oswestry anytime in June or July? Melverley Farm nature reserve near Whitchurch is home to a sea of common spotted orchids in amongst the other flowers of the meadows. Where ever you go this summer, take a closer look at the wildflowers growing in the fields, woods and hedgerows for some of them will be Shropshire's wild orchids just waiting to be discovered.

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