I’m fond of the comparison between orchid diversity in Canberra and Britain. On Black Mountain, a 460 ha reserve right next to the centre of Canberra, we have more species of orchid (66 species) than in the whole of Britain (52 species). Perhaps the comparison is a little unfair…but regardless we are incredibly lucky in Australia to have over 1700 species of native orchid.
The reason I was in England was in fact to attend an orchid conference - the 7th International Orchid Conservation Congress, held at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The congress brought together leading orchid conservation researchers and practitioners from around the world.
I remember sitting on the long plane flight across to England and thinking: Is it actually worth flying half way across the world just to attend some talks and give my own 12 minute talk? But after the conference I had no doubts that it was worth the long trip. The conference itself was fun, but also was a great environment to meet orchid researchers from around the world and to get a feel for the research being done in other countries and groups.
I was amazed by the diversity of speakers - we heard talks from Malaysia and Brazil about illegal collecting, from several countries in Africa about illegal collecting for chikanda (a kind of cake produced using orchid tubers), from Greece about orchid collecting for salep (a flour used in thick beverages and desserts produced using orchid tubers), from the Netherlands about how orchids are adapting to city living, from China about how nursery production can help reduce demand for wild-collected slipper orchids, from New Zealand about orchid-mychorrizal fungi interactions, from La Reunion about incredible moth pollination of angrecoid orchids, from Costa Rica about animal dispersal of vanilla orchid seeds…. the list goes on.
It truly was an international conference, and it was inspiring to see the breadth of work being done on conserving threatened orchids. But it was also interesting to see how our own orchid conservation work in Australia stacks up, and how we are truly at the forefront of applied orchid conservation globally. The applied research coming particularly from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, and also Kings Park in Western Australia and various universities around the country, is world-leading, innovative and thorough, and is leading to great outcomes particularly in ex situ conservation and reintroductions of native terrestrial orchids.
Despite my initial, disparaging comparison about the small number of British orchids, there are some really cool ones. We went on one field trip during the conference, out to chalk grassland at Box Hill south of London. After the conference, Alyssa, Marc and myself travelled for a few days, visiting Down House (where Darwin used to live), Dover (to see the cliffs) and the woods in the Canterbury area. Here is a visual guide to what we saw.
For a non-European, you can’t go past the Ophrys, an orchid I’d never seen before. They really are the star of the European orchid show. Ophrys apifera, the bee orchid, is the most common and we saw this species at Box Hill and Blean. Very pretty and showy flowers. This species, like many Ophrys, is sexually deceptive, and attracts male bee pollinators by producing smells which mimic the sex pheromone of the female bee. In England this species primarily self-pollinates, and in some cases you can see the pollinia curving down towards the stigmatic surface to self-pollinate.
Ophrys insectifera, the fly orchid, is the next most common Ophrys in Britain. We found good numbers are Darwin’s bank, a small clearing in a small woodland reserve near Down, where Darwin used to make observations of these orchids. It felt a little special to be looking at the same orchids that Darwin used to 150 years ago. Plus, the shape of the flowers is pretty special.
These orchids are also sexually deceptive and attract male wasps.
The final Ophrys we found on the cliffs overlooking Dover. This species flowers earlier than the others, so we only caught the last few flowers still hanging on.
OK, so we’ll hand it to the Europeans, Ophrys are indeed very cool. Some of the others weren’t quite as cool though. This one just looked like a little pink orchid to me. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh. We saw plenty of these at Box Hill south of London.
Another little pink orchid. Again, we saw this species just coming in to flower at Box Hill. On the plus side, the green English grass was giving me wonderfully green and smooth backgrounds.
I think these guys are actually really cool. The flowers are small and numerous, but they have a cute shape. They are commonly known as man orchids, I guess perhaps they look like little men. Plenty of these guys at Box Hill too.
These little orchids are kind of cool. Perhaps a little green, but by the end of the trip we had seen so many that I think we became a bit bored of them. They are known as common twayblade, and we saw good numbers at Box Hill and literally thousands at Darwin’s Bank near Down.
We only got a good look at this species at Darwin’s Bank near Down. Flowers on the white helleborine typically don’t open much, but we managed to find one flower semi-open.
Now these are what I call cool orchids! One of the last orchids we saw was this lizard orchid, Himantoglossum hircinum, at a reserve near the town of Sandwich in Kent. Of course, we stopped to have a sandwich for lunch in Sandwich, and then we headed out to the coast in search of the lizard orchid. The species is rare and restricted in England, but more common on the continent.
We didn’t have to search much…we quickly found flowers growing on the lawn of someone’s front yard, and later found hundreds on dunes overlooking the sea.
What a funny orchid though! Why do they need such long, twisted labella? It was incredibly to watch the long filaments dancing in the wind.
So there you go! Nine species of orchid from Britain, or 17% of the entire British orchid flora. We also saw a few other species which I haven’t included here. For me, the Ophrys, the man orchid, and lizard orchid were really cool, and quite different from our Australian species.