Click on Images where you see this symbol. WildWest records and celebrates Nature, Habitat, Scenery on the western seaboard of Europe bringing you reports on how our wild communities (plants, animals, insects etc) are surviving in Ireland and other western extremes. Published 3rd May 2020 1400px site. Designed for Desktop or Laptop…
Orchid Habitats: Chalk lands… This story relates to different Orchid species and very different habitats encountered on days off mainly north and south of London. It’s like a busman’s holiday and it has been a pleasure to meet new species and the devoted people who care for them. Long may Botanical tourism thrive between Ireland, Britain and Europe.

Shakespeare Cliff, Kent

This is a impressive area of the Chalk cliffs near Dover where an edible plant, Rock Samphire, was gathered in the past by people hanging from ropes over the cliff's edge. Shakespeare made a reference to this ‘dreadful trade’ in his play, King Lear, and the cliff itself is now known as ‘Shakespeare Cliff’. There is a small railway line, in operation since 1844 running at the base of the cliff, just visible as the double tunnel in the background of the image above. Samphire Hoe is new land on the seaward side of the railway line which was created by dumping of chalk material from the Channel Tunnel excavations. The land thus created was later opened to the public as a Country Park and appropriately named Samphire Hoe (after the plant). It is accessed by road via a steep tunnel from the top of the cliffs which exits onto the Hoe next to the railway tunnels. This is an exciting and unusual area of about 30 hectares looking out over the Channel towards France and has many interesting plant species including the Early Spider Orchid, Sea Lavender and Samphire. It is a haven of peace and quiet enabling a new ‘orchid habitat‘ and tourist destination and was a great way to usefully treat the spoil from the Channel Tunnel. The Chalk cliffs along the south coast are very susceptible to erosion by the sea but this stretch is well protected by this new land of Samphire Hoe!

Selborne, Hampshire

Selborne is on the north edge of the South Downs National Park, and the area (especially on a sunny summer’s day) is charming. Though the name Selborne is mostly associated with Gilbert White and his research on birds and other animals in the 18th century, this location has a number of important sites for orchids. Noar Hill, not far from the village of Selborne, is a small, but fascinating area of chalk grassland. At first, the site looks rather unkempt, with scattered hillocks with scrub and small trees and chalky slopes. The site of medieval chalk workings which were used as fertiliser, there are now numerous little hills, dells and shallow valleys where the chalk was quarried. The site has small trees of beech and hazel, and much scrub. On the very hot July day when this site was visited, the grass was parched except under the trees. But there was a profusion of flowers, including the rare Musk orchid, Chalk Fragrant orchid, Twayblade, Knapweed Broomrape and Clustered Bellflower. It was the Musk orchid which was the main attraction though…

Knocking Hoe, Bedfordshire

This is a stunning Nature reserve at the north end of The Chiltern Hills on chalk grassland. There is a wonderful collection of rare and interesting plants including the Pasque flower, Spotted Catsear and Clustered Bellflower. But the one that draws so many botanists to here is the rare Burnt Tip orchid, which is found in only a few sites in Southern England. In the image BELOW, left, there is a fenced-off area at the far end of the grassy ridge where the majority of the Burnt Tips are protected from disturbance. 

Some English orchids…

On trips to England (specifically), searching for orchids and other interesting plant life has been an enjoyable pastime for us. Depending on the location, there are nearly always good references to be be found online or in books which can be researched beforehand, which lead us to a local rarity or an particularly interesting species. It is exciting to search for an orchid which does not occur in Ireland, and take the photographs, and details of the day, away with us as happy memories of a particular trip. This report just describes a few of our jaunts in recent years. Sometimes, it was the particular orchid species we were seeking, other times it was the attraction of a well-documented and well-recommended Nature reserve or local area where many orchids species and other plants were common. The chalky geology of southern England is a wonderful environment for orchids and one which does not occur in Ireland. But, Ireland does have its own rare species and it is lovely to meet botanists from other countries who visit sites in Ireland for this purpose. We always like to hear from you, just as we enjoy meeting botanists on our trips to English sites!
The Early Spider Orchid was found in small numbers on the steep cliffs seen on the image above. It’s a rare species, found in only a few areas in Kent and other southern counties (Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset). However, since the creation of Samphire Hoe, this orchid can be found in large numbers on the grassland in front of the cliffs. Some hundreds were starting to flower when these images were taken (April 21st) but we are told they occur in thousands…

Musk Orchid

Herminium monorchis

A rare very delicate yellow orchid of old quarries in the south of England…

Chalk Fragrant Orchid

Gymnadenia conopsea

A delicate Fragrant Orchid of chalk landscapes, quarries or downs.

Fulbourn Fen Cambridgeshire….

This was a lovely peaceful little Nature reserve, encompassing some old meadows and chalky fenland area. Visited in May, the fen was only slightly damp, as the weather had been very warm. Along with a few interesting Adders Tongue Ferns, were scattered a few of the orchids pictured here. Now, these orchids  gave us a bit of a problem. They were very sturdy plants, like the Early Marsh D. coccinea,  but not quite the same? We figured that they were Dactylorhiza praeternissa, the Southern Marsh orchid which is a species that doesn’t occur in Ireland. The flower heads were still just buds, so it wasn’t possible to view the flower structure On most of the specimens the leaves were unmarked, but one (RIGHT) had markings which were not spots, but  purplish oval shaped patterns on the upper side of the leaves only. (We’ve seen similar sort of markings in the leaves of Dactylorhiza cruenta, which is a much more slender orchid, and which we get in Ireland). If you are familiar with Southern Marsh orchids, please do let us know if this identification is correct?

Southern Marsh Orchid

Dactylorhiza praeternissa

A common Marsh Orchid, found in Northern and Central Europe, absent in Ireland
A rare plant in England, this tiny, fragile orchid is common in mainland Europe but not found in Ireland. It is greenish-yellow, and has no spur. The flower points downward, and and petals and sepals are rather thin. and unlobed. Hundreds were seen growing on this Noar Hill site in early July. Image on RIGHT shows one clump of about ten Musk orchids in a small patch of grass.
This delicately coloured Chalk Fragrant orchid, on RIGHT, is relatively common in chalk grasslands and Downs in England. It has the longest spur of the Fragrant orchid species and, like the others, has a clove-like scent. The flowers are often widely separated which shows off the long, very curved spur.  This was an exceptionally beautiful specimen!,

White Helleborine

Cephalanthera damasonium

A common orchid in most of Europe…

Burnt Tip Orchid

Neotinea ustulata

This rare orchid is found in chalk grasslands and has a distinctive maroon coloured tip to the budding flowerhead.
This is quite a small orchid ; these specimens weren’t more than 10cm high. However, these photographs were taken in May when the orchids were not fully developed as can be seen by the strongly dark wine-coloured buds on the tip of the plant. This is what gives the orchid its name as the tip looks ‘burnt’. It actually looks much more attractive at this stage than when  the flowers are all open, as the flowers look much paler then… The lip, or lower petal is 3 lobed, with the middle lobe split, and is white with wine spots. It looks like  a cartoon man shape  with the upper petals and sepals forming a hood above, the ‘body’ being the divided lip below.
Homefield Wood is a pleasant area of woodland in Buckinghamshire at the south east edge of the Chiltern Hills. Near the access road, there is an area of coniferous trees, not yet fully mature and with good areas of sun and shade beneath. This was welcome in a sweltering hot early summers day! Many broad and little paths spread throughout this wood, and it appears to be a popular place for walkers. Beyond the wood, and through an open stretch of cut-over forest, lay the protected sanctuary for these rare orchids. This is one of only a couple of sites for the Military orchid. A very charming and informative book describes the site. The Orchid Hunter (RIGHT) written by Leif Bersweden, who we met in Ireland, is both a delightful story full of years of Natural History wisdom and interesting personal memoirs! Having already explored other sites for orchids around the Chilterns, this hot day seemed like an ideal opportunity to see if we could find this orchid, though we knew it was very early in the season…
There were some scattered Burnt Tip orchids growing  along the top of the far ridge (see image ABOVE) but the majority were in an enclosure marked with little red flags. This site is well protected by local botanists and these measures will help to protect them from grazing animals as well as disturbance from visiting botanists and photographers! The Reserve is really worth a visit to see this lovely rare orchid, as well as many other interesting plants that are found here. But, before we left the area, we just had to examine the many impressive White Helleborines, which were flourishing in the Beech woods which stretch between the site and the main access road. Pictured RIGHT, these White Helleborines are common around Europe, though unfortunately not in Ireland!

Early Spider Orchid

Ophrys sphegodes

A rare and sturdy little orchid of chalky sites in southern England
Beyond the wood and cut-over forest the ground opened out into an area of grassland, with scattered copses of trees. Next to one of these copses was a deep dell, which was securely fenced off. (BELOW LEFT). This was the protected site for this rare orchid. There were little walkways beyond the entry gate and a viewing platform, presumably for visiting botanist groups and researchers. Even looking with binoculars into this enclosure, we were disappointed not to see any evidence of these orchids. However, as we circled around the enclosure, we noticed a lightly fenced area with an open gate to a smaller patch. Carefully tip-toeing in, we spied some unusual greyish purple buds showing in the short grass. We’d found it! The plants were really at an early stage, with one or two flowers appearing on a few of the plants. It’s another ‘man-like’ orchid, the hood at this stage looking like soft greyish velvet, the labellum or lip edged in purple, with reddish-purple ‘tufts’ along the centre. There appeared to be quite a number of the orchids in this small patch, but only three had a few flowers open. More information on the species from the BSBI at… Orchis_militaris Biology and Distribution 

World Distribution

Britain (barely), Central Europe and Asia as far east as the Caucasus and Siberia. Some superb photographs from the Czech Republic can be seen on  
LEFT Homefield Wood Home to one of Britain’s rarest orchids. RIGHT A freshly emerged specimen in early May beside the main habitat for the species in an old quarry.
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Homefield Wood

Military Orchid

Orchis militaris

A very rare orchid of stunning appearance and colouration!
Do enlarge this image as it contains an impressive number of very small plants
The orchids in this site were not yet flowering but in another smaller patch nearby  many striking plants were newly emerging and we had easy access to the specimens. This is a good example of helpful voluntary conservation work, protecting the orchid as well as letting observers approach the area without doing any harm. Many thanks!

Evolution and Phylogenetics of Orchids: With Orchis mascula and Orchis militaris as examples

In recent investigations and online research we have become, again, interested in learning more about the evolution of species and the change of structures that seem to contribute to this family being so successful. (Development of pollinia, epiphytic adaption, root development and expanded distribution in both tropical and mountainous regions. etc.)  Much research on the group seems focused on analysis of the genome as a definitive means of allocating apparently similar plants to different species and very varied specimens (particularly in regard to colour) to the same species. We feel there is still room for traditional field identification of species and that the morphology of a plant is important, as is its genotype. This view has been brought to the fore in recent work on the Flecked Marsh Orchid which is alternatively known as Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp cruenta or more simply Dactylorhiza cruenta, its former name and one which is well warranted based on phenotype and distribution. The evolution and migration of the Dactylorhizids in general is discussed in our study of Cruenta, particularly the way they adapted to climate change (the Alpine orogeny) and developed adaptations to a colder climate that held them in good stead in their rapid subsequent migration across Eurasia. The Military Orchid (Orchis militaris) is not of the same genus but its distribution and occurrence seems somewhat similar to D. cruenta. Literature A: Phylogeny of orchid groups investigates the adaptations they have made that make the various species so successful in the world… BELOW we quote an article recently published online by The Royal Society.

Orchid phylogenomics and multiple drivers of their extraordinary diversification

In an extract from their Introduction they say… “Orchids form the largest family of flowering plants, with over 880 genera and 25,000 species; they comprise roughly 8% of all vascular plant species and grow in a wide range of habitats worldwide [1,2]. Essentially all temperate orchids are terrestrial, but most orchids inhabit tropical forests and over 80% of those are epiphytes. All orchids rely on fungi for germination and carbon capture in the protocorm stage, and in many taxa this mycorrhizal association remains obligate for life [3].” Givnish TJ et al. 2015 Orchid phylogenomics and multiple drivers of their extraordinary diversification. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20151553. Literature B: A further detailed and helpful source is available from The Journal of Botany at Oxford. Phylogenetics of tribe Orchideae (Orchidaceae: Orchidoideae) based on combined DNA matrices: inferences regarding timing of diversification and evolution of pollination syndromes Luis A. Inda1,*, Manuel Pimentel2 and Mark W. Chase3 This provides detailed records of the evolution path and the current phylogeny of many of the European Orchidaceae A lot of the DNA analysis is very technical but charts included show the close relationship of 2 Orchis species, namely O. mascula (Early Purple) and the Military Orchid (Orchis militaris) We show that relationship in images of young plants shown RIGHT. Download above Study… it’s amazing!
Military Orchid, O. militaris Cambs., UK. 15th May 2019
Early Purple Orchid, O. mascula Roscommon, Irl. 20th April 2020
These two orchids are similar. They are sturdy, quick growing, flower early and have radially scattered flowers. The leaves and stalk initially are both straight and sturdy with broad pointed leaves clasped tightly to the stem. But, there are differences too. In particular the spurs are different with the Early Purple being unusual in pointing upwards and being long and thin whereas its cousin’s is stubby and pointing downwards. Also, whereas the colouration is similar to some degree, the labellum is much more ornate in the Military Orchid having the appearance of a human figure which is why it is one of the four anthropomorphic orchids found in Britain. Their occurrence is also markedly different. The Early Purple is abundant and widespread in both countries whereas the Military Orchid is unknown in Ireland (so far… specimens in Finland were misdiagnosed as Early Purple for many years) and very rare in England. Why? Some of the answers may lie in the Phylogeny Table contained in Literature B and a small extract of which is reproduced BELOW…


So how are these two species related and why do they have such different distributions. Firstly, it is clear that all members of a genus, like Dactylorhiza, are not identical and have a great number of species occurring around the world. Taxonomical classification of plants regularly changes based on observation and genetics. Fortunately the Orchis genus is a small one and the pathways are simpler. If we consider O. anthropophora (Man Orchid) at the bottom of the list to be the 2nd cousin of O. militaris then O. mascula can be called a more distant relation but all are within the Orchis clan and the Orchidaceae family. Does that make any sense?

What features define the genus Orchis?

Several broad leaves on lower stem with some smaller ones above, sometimes spotted. The petals and sepals often form a helmet like structure, 5  in the case of militaris  and 3 in the case of mascula. Labellum with two lateral lobes and a larger terminal lobe and usually 2-3 lobed at its tip. Spur may be short or long (as above) or absent. There is clearly a similarity between these two orchids especially when the plants are seen with young buds. It is strange that one is so common and the other is so rare. One of the flukes or anomalies of incident and evolution?
This is just a small section of the DNA based relationship map for the tribe Orchidaceae showing the relative position of mascula and militaris species within the Orchis genus. The full chart is available in the PDF provided by the Authors. (LEFT)
Phylogeny… the relationships among different organisms or groups and their evolutionary development.

A free tool for Field Naturalists.

The above Report also has a very interesting 2nd feature. All groups of orchids reproduce in many different ways — self- fertilisation, cross fertilisation, various fertilising agents, autogamous, and some other more exotic processes. These affect the distribution and the survival of a species. e.g. Bee Orchid v. Fly Orchid! We cannot reproduce that table here but Link to the Study  and at the middle of the report you will find a Table named… Phylogeny and Evolution of the European orchids. TABLE 1. Pollination-related characters analysed: This describes pollination methods for all Orchids studied. Species..   Nectaries..  Syndrome..    Pollinators…  Labellum area Samples: O. mascula     no     food deception   female Bees O. militaris     no      food deception      Bees    SPECIES: The name of the Orchid. Most species are listed. NECTARIES: Neither species studied provide nectar. POLLINATION SYNDROME: The main way an orchid effects pollination, Food Deception/Food Reward/Sexual Deception/Sleeping Site/Autogamous. Each species is identified by syndrome. POLLINATORS: Bees/Male Bees/Female Bees/Wasps/other Hymenoptera/ Coleoptera/Diptera/Lepidoptera LABELLUM AREA: (Length x Width)/2 in sq. millimetres. A large labellum is an aid to easy fertilisation!
LEFT: The protected site for Military Orchids. 

Comparison of two related Orchis spp.

The specimen pictured ABOVE was sturdy,about 10cm high. Many of the other specimens were barely pushing above the soil.

Why Chalkland? is based in Ireland. There is very little Chalk in Ireland for simple geological reasons. There are vast areas of Limestone and other alkaline strata… but no chalk! So why fewer lime loving orchids? This may be the reason why none of the plants listed here are found in Ireland and why we love our chances to botanise in southern England (where chalk is everywhere) and meet and talk to people about their orchids and our (Irish) orchids. It is a common bond….
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A young Orchis mascula in bud
FULBOURN FEN: West Melbury Marly Chalk Formation. Cretaceous Bedrock formed approximately 94 to 101 million years ago, grey, off-white, soft, marly chalk and hard grey limestone arranged alternately. Superficial Deposits of sand and gravel formed up to 2 million years ago. Local environment previously dominated by rivers.
KNOCKING HOE KNOLL... Melbourn Rock Member. Chalk. Cretaceous bedrock (90 to 101 mya.) Hard to very hard off- white, blocky fractured chalk with numerous nodular chalk beds and thin spreading marls.
HOMEFIELD WOOD: Lewes, Seaford and Newhaven nodular Chalk Formations. Chalk. Cretaceous sedimentary bedrock formed approximately 72 to 94 mya. NOAR HILL. Holywell Nodular Chalk Formation.  Cretaceous Chalk  bedrock ( 90 - 101 mya.) Local environment dominated by warm chalk seas. Hard nodular chalk with thin marls and some shell debris in places SAMPHIRE HOE:  Zig Zag Chalk Formation. Cretaceous Chalk bedrock (94 - 101 mya). Mostly firm, pale grey to off-white blocky chalk with a lower part characterised by rhythmic alternations of marls and  chalk. +