We bought the land on which we planted Betty’s Wood at the end of 2010. In 2011 we noticed that there were a couple of orchids developing in the wet and rutted area on the far side of the field, near the boundary, in which dew ponds had formed in the tractor tracks. Here also was developing willow scrub, a result of an inability to plough and sow this area, and it was one of the most wild parts of the field, and also very rich in wildlife compared with the desert left behind by a wheat crop.
In 2012, we had the same two plants in the same area, but no more. This year, however, they have obviously spread. At last count there were 31 individual flower spikes, most of them discrete plants, covering not only the original area, but spreading into adjacent paths and damp ground near one of our newly-created ponds.
They are Southern Marsh Orchids. They are not rare. Dactylorhiza praetermissa is relatively common in the south and midlands of England. Apparently it likes damp areas, but not wet areas, and as such our dew ponds, ruts and slightly boggy paths are ideal for it. It is described as liking calcareous soil (generally chalky and alkaline) but our soil is relatively acid and consists of clay and sand over coal. The wonderful thing about this display of orchids is the variety in form that they show. Not only does the colour vary from a beautiful pale magenta pink through to deep purple via a wonderful deep magenta pink, but also the form varies enormously from tiny little spikes with just a few flowers right through to impressive lupin-like spikes almost 2 ft high. All have the characteristic spotted pattern on the lower petal.
What is so wonderful is how quickly these beautiful plants have colonised the area after agriculture ceased and wildlife was encouraged. They are now growing among the dew ponds, scrub and young trees, as well as on the mown path, and there is plenty of habitat that will remain both damp and open into which they can spread as the woodland develops around them. We hope to conserve and spread some of the seed later this year too, so that other damp areas within the woods can support their beauty – in particular a very damp meadow in the main woodland itself, just a few hundred yards away.
They are so beautiful, so exotic, and so special, I rather went to town on the photos. I certainly hope that this year’s set of photos is the first of very many.