Saturday, 26 May 2012

Monkey Orchids and other Spring Flowers

This posting is of a field trip with the excellent local history society. For a report on all that the group found please look here. With continuous bright sunshine it became a little too hot at times. The April rains had brought out an excellent array of spring flowers some of which are quite rare. Firstly one of my favourite plants at this time of year, the very vigorous and healthy looking black bryony (Dioscorea communis).

black bryony

The location was on a steep south-facing chalk slope overlooking the Thames.

River Thames

And now for the main reason for the visit, this is one of the few sites where you can see a few rare monkey orchids (Orchis simia). Apart from Hartslock you can only see them in Kent.

Monkey orchid

The bright colour and strange form is very appealing, but they are small (the spike is only a couple of inches). Here is a close-up showing the curious arms; legs and tail. The monkeys have a pale 'bonnet' around the head.

Monkey orchid

Sometimes they give the impression of legs sticking out all over.

Monkey orchid

The reason for a great deal of botanical excitement is that there are a couple of Lady orchids (Orchis purpurea) here too. How they got there is a mystery as you would expect to see them in Southern France. The flowers were well passed their best.

Lady orchid

And what is more these have hybridised with the Monkey orchids to create a more vigorous Monkey-Lady orchid mixture that is dramatically more vigorous than its two parents. Its flowers are somewhat intermediate in form between the monkey and lady parents, with many more flowers per spike. The 'bonnet' around the head is much more purple than its monkey parent.

Hybrid Monkey/Lady orchid

The hybrids grow up to ten times taller than their parents and are restricted to a patch within five yards of the Lady orchids.

Hybrid Monkey/Lady orchid

Here's a close-up of one flower, revealing a smiling face, you can see there is something of a monkey about it.

Hybrid Monkey/Lady orchid

There were also a few plants that are just as rare but much less visually exciting. These include Bastard Toadflax (Thesium humifusum), a strange semi-parasitic plant that is hard to spot, and not yet in flower. Also Downy Fruited Sedge (Carex tomentosa) - a very rare variety of grass. The more common but choice plants were also present in good numbers, including horseshoe vetch.

Horseshoe vetch

Such a wealth of wild flowers (lots of milkwort) attracted butterflies, although in the stiff breeze they didn't settle for photographs. Dingy skipper; orange tip; brimstone; small tortoiseshell; small heath were all seen. There were at least two types of blue butterfly around, common blue and this holly blue (Celastrina argiolus).

Holly blue butterfly

Back to the flowers with Clustered Bellflower (Campanula glomerata)

Clustered bellflower

And another orchid with intricate flowers that can be hard to spot Twayblades (Neottia ovata).


Finally, another member of the orchid 'family' is White Helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium), doing well on the fringe of woods.

White helleborine

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