An exploration of wild & interesting places in Ireland and their western European/American flora and fauna…
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There are a variety of habitats around Loughs Conn and Cullin ranging from tiny mounds or 'islands' of vegetation on a sandy beach to flat muddy shallow shores with low vegetation and grassy areas at the top of a shoreline to exposed pebbly shores with very little vegetation and even fields above the shore! A feature of Spiranthes growth is that if you find one plant along the shore, look in a line the same height above water in either direction and in all probability you will find more. There is an Autumn flood water height level which varies from year to year. You can often see plant seeds and bruss washed up along this 'line'. Spiranthes are often found growing along similar lines many years later. Seeds are dispersed normally in September/October in North America; often this does not happen in Ireland and we rely on American seed. These are borne by the wind to Ireland and concentrated on lakes getting washed ashore at the existing 'tide level' at the time. This simple pattern is compounded by the fact that these tiny seeds, lacking all nutrients, have to form an association with substrate mycorrhiza over many years before they have the resources to flower or even produce leaves.(See article BELOW on Mycorrhiza and the WildWest Report on the possibility of Spiranthes coming from America.)
A small, very rare, elusive and delicate Orchid occupies a lot of our time at this season. Indeed, Orchids in general, are a very important part of Ireland's biodiversity. Spiranthes research this year focused largely on Mayo lakes, specifically, Loughs Conn and Cullin, Levally and Beltra. The surprising early Summer heatwave (May through to July) provided us with some unprecedented weather — people and animals sheltered from the midday sun — which probably led to the early appearance of Spiranthes romanzoffiana (July 5th). These early orchids suffered, too, and we were worried they would be dead before our expected EU tourists arrived in Ireland to see what they can't see at home! Light rain in the north west during late July and early August appeared to encourage new Spiranthes to appear while earlier ones were withering. In previous years August has brought summer floods which limits the development of Spiranthes but, this year, there has been no such flooding — yet! Numbers around the shores of Lough Conn and Cullin were very good this year, and a number of new locations were discovered, particularly around Lough Conn.
Specific growth and survival characteristics of S. romanzoffiana.
This Orchid is very rare in Ireland and Scotland but is a member of a large genus in North America. One other species occurs in Ireland, Spiranthes spiralis or Autumn Lady's Tresses, but this is a European/Asian species which does not occur in North America! Both occur close to one another in the West of Ireland but their origins are totally different? In discussing special characteristics we will concentrate on S. romanzoffiana. Also, for people working in Ireland the distribution and habitat scenarios described above are familiar and largely consistent but in Canada and United States these plants are found up to 2000 metres, grow much larger, and don't have such a clear association with water for their survival. It seems that the Irish population are marginal and are relying on a seed concentrating process with wind borne seed carried across the Atlantic and lapping gently onto shorelines of some of our bigger lakes. This is the greatest survival trick of this species. The next is the ability of the unsupported seed to unite with universally present mycorrhiza (fungal roots) in the soil and gain enough nutrients through this link to form a small 'cormlet' which develops over several years before it has the resources to produce leaves and then flower. (Most seeds carry food with them and are much bigger and less dependent.) It is then a normal photosynthetic plant. First year plants are always small, puny, and arranged in lines or curves representing a previous years water level. These plants survive for 4, or more, years and can develop and multiply vegetatively to produce a group of 2 - 4 clustered together. In North America greater numbers of larger plants are routinely seen together — perhaps a reflection once more of the marginal status of this plant in Ireland? Our climate is simply not warm enough or our Summers long enough for these plants to enjoy a long photosynthetic season and to nurture many lateral buds. Also, being essentially lakeshore plants, the changing pattern of mid Summer floods both in Ireland (as in Europe) causes specimens developing along this ‘tide line’ to be flooded and any future seeds will be easily lost.The next specific characteristic of this Orchid is its adaptation to water. This species survives better underwater than any other Irish orchid. After flowering a plant will produce one or two lateral buds which will then start to grow as long as the weather stays warm. But they can be flooded in August and can stay flooded until the following March or April. The flowering stalk will wither but, under the water, the plant can still be seen and its new shoots measured and photographed. They remain the same overwinter and will start to grow steadily when the water level eventually recedes. The original plant may also re-grow again and the new lateral buds can also flower leading to 2 or 3 flowering orchids together. This ability to survive above ground but under water is remarkable and makes the plant very well adapted to Irish conditions. We call this species the ‘Alder of the orchid world’ in the way it thrives under flooded conditions. Gentle ice does not seem to bother them either unless it reaches down to where they lie. This is rare in modern Ireland as hard frost is uncommon and the specimens may be as much as 250 mm underwater!
The current official wisdom on generation of new plants is that the seeds of S. romanzoffiana need to spend about 5 years in suitable 'soil' and to form an association there with fungal roots. These mycorrhiza provide support and nutrients for the very simple orchid embryo. The incredibly small seed (with no reserves of starch) germinate underground in association with the fungal symbiotic partner it needs to develop. The very small germ or bud formed underground over the years develops a large system of roots and an enlarged main root that leads to the final production of a flowering orchid after many years. Based on observations of S. romanzoffiana coming and going with long periods of absence, or even complete disappearance at a particular site, one must conclude that the plant is either dormant/developing underground or that new seed has arrived from another location. It is evident, now, that vast numbers of seeds arrive in Ireland and migrate via lake surfaces to any suitable shorelines nearby. And that is where our new specimens are discovered every year. These specimens may have been underground long before they develop a flowering stem but we know of no proof that this process takes 5 years or more!Back to the real world... we do know that plants that emerge will likely survive for 3 or 4 years apart from the real risk of damage by weather or shoreline erosion. The latter is clearly a real risk in large parts of the Cullin/Conn lake complex where increased pressure on grazing (exacerbated this year by the severe Summer drought) has led to many parts of the shore being churned up by grazing animals. Biodiversity can be beneficial to land users and what is needed to hold onto it is a partnership that provides and protects suitable small areas where this rare plant can thrive undisturbed.We have asked 'are these mychorriza the same for all orchids?’ Sometimes the answer seems 'No' but, alternatively ‘Yes’? Of late it seems that a variety of Fungus species may provide what is needed. In talking about funguses we are not talking about Mushrooms or Toadstools. These fungi would be underground and presumably have very fine hyphae traveling over a long distance as is found on decaying logs, for example. We have never seen this material in the shingly, stony, sandy, muddy substrate that S. romanzoffiana likes so much. Maybe they are easily found; perhaps they are undetectable?The distributions of orchid mycorrhizal fungi have been shown to be independent of orchids (Brundrett et al., 2003; Feuerherdt et al., 2005): ‘the ability to utilize otherwise free-living fungi in mycorrhizal symbioses appears to be a unique characteristic of orchids. Another characteristic trait of the orchid family is the exceptionally prolific production of tiny dust-like seeds (microspermy) that can engage in mycorrhizal interactions during the earliest stages of germination. Journal of Experimental Botany, Volume 59, Issue 5, 1 March 2008, Pages 1085–1096, https://doi.org/10.1093/jxb/erm366
Specific fungal associates.
Some specialist Garden Centres provide special nutrient packs for cultivating orchids which do contain 'beneficial mycorrhiza' . We have even seen special packs advertised for cultivating Spiranthes. However, this may just be commerce and we have not seen any evidence that a specific mycorrhiza is needed for S. romanzoffiana to grow in Lough Conn conditions. It would need to be widespread as this orchid seems to grow everywhere around the lake where conditions are suitable and the shore is left undisturbed?
This is a summary of conditions needed for successful growth of Spiranthes. The significant physical conditions combined with lack of disturbance can be summarised as:
a) shore profile and shore condition
ASPECT: There are many factors involved here, aspect, profile, geology, etc. When studying this plant on Lough Allen we were convinced over many years that the eastern shore of a lake was much more productive than the western shore and had a defined physical factor benefiting it — perhaps as it was facing south west it received extended late Summer evening sun. A lot of orchids do thrive on a sunny aspect, for example Small White Orchids, Butterfly Orchids, and other hill or shore loving species.Plants growing on a west shore will suffer gloomy evenings if the shore is backed by trees, as it often is. In late August, when seeds should be developing, such evenings can be chilly and this stops further growth and may cause flowers to droop. However in Lough Conn and Lough Cullin, plants seem to grow and flower on shores facing all directions. Some of these shores are wider or trees lower or absent but, certainly, the direction the shore faces is less significant. In fact the west and north shores of Lough Conn are producing the best records in the last several years. This, however, may be more down to other factors such as less disturbance.PROFILE: S. romanzoffiana seeds, in order to survive, need to land on open water bodies and then drift onto shores where they can develop. To do this, and become embedded in the shore, they need a very characteristic slope of shore. In Ireland they typically occur in a defined line marking some previous waterline (at the time they drifted ashore). Typically this may also be marked by a change from a predominantly stony shore to a shore carrying much vegetation, grasses, herbs, Royal Fern and little bushes of Myrtle and Alder etc. These seeds are extremely delicate but numerous and we would envisage their settlement taking place on very calm days on a very flat shore in Autumn when either local seeds or seeds carried by wind from North America meet a suitable shore. (See last years Report which also contains a microscope photograph of a seed from Newfoundland.)One of our most recently discovered sites (16th August) contained almost identical sections of shore one of which had abundant specimens and the other either none or very few. These two stretches are shown in photographs alongside the Map, ABOVE. As you can see vegetation and appearance of the shore is very similar, the usual shore and back-shore plants are present, and the vegetation behind the shore is the same. The numbers and distribution was significantly less in the stony steeper shore. Why?One can imagine waves breaking on the shore and then running out again removing any sand in the process. Possibly the slope of the shore was slightly different. The 'barren' shore had a wider exposed pebble zone; this can vary from 1 metre to 6m. around L. Conn. Also the shore may have been stonier with some possibly larger cobbles. But this was hard to detect on walking the site. If it were true this might indicate a slightly steeper slope with a greater surging of water. If water flows in at moderate speed and then flows out again it may be harder for any seeds to drop out of the moving water and settle in any substrate present. Whilst these shores appear pebbly there always seems to be a level of sand/silt underneath. Individual plants may germinate on such shores but never in the numbers found in more suitable conditions. Soft material is necessary to hold the seeds and to support the mycorrhiza needed for the orchid's subsequent growth.
b) absence of competition or disturbance
SHORE CLEARING: In Lough Allen Spiranthes does, also, grow in a variety of situations. Now very much restricted to the waters edge it used to be common some distance from the shore typically in a Grass and Alder back-shore. Always flat, probably regularly flooded, and with the orchids often lodged tight against the alder trunks. This could be a situation where higher Autumn water levels flooded the young alders and the seeds dropped in eddies around their stems. This was an important niche for S. romanzoffiana around L. Allen but many suitable shores have now been denuded of their Alder scrub.Around L. Conn these low Alder pastures are now largely grazed and much effort is, again, being applied to remove the Alders (and orchids!) using heavy machinery. Such disturbance will lead to a long term demise or a long absence of this orchid from this site. Similar loss of habitat occurs where owners of new houses/holiday homes thoughtlessly bulldoze access to the water below their sites. This should be avoided as this orchid is protected by a Flora Protection Order which also prohibits damage to their habitat. Of course, many people will not be aware of such a species on their shore.LEFT:‘Land improvement’ work in progress at another Spirantheshabitat on the middle West shore with large Alder bushes beingremoved and rocks exposed.NATURAL DISTURBANCE: Spiranthes romanzoffiana is well able to deal with natural changes brought about by floods and storms. These often provide an opportunity for new colonies to develop in locations that may not have provided suitable habitats previously. The photograph (RIGHT) shows a location where storm damage has eroded a shore where only last year many orchids were recorded. We managed to find one clinging onto a little mud ledge whilst the remainder in that section had been washed away. These plants have leaves above the ground all through the year and these leaves can be quite strong in Spring and liable to being torn out by waves and floods. (See Special Characteristics section.)COMPETITION: Many shores are expanding and becoming covered by higher vegetation. If dense foliage develops early in the year — shrubs, Royal Fern, grasses — this will inhibit the orchids from developing and plants established in such places will die out. However that shore will probably have a pebbly section developing further out in the lake and this may provide a new habitat replacing the orchids being shaded out. Orchids re-appearing annually do so from an enlarged root with one apical meristem. They also can develop new plants vegetatively from lateral buds that form in the Autumn, survive the Winter, and grow during the following Spring. New plants occurring even a foot away are probably coming from seed and that seed may be coming from America rather than their own patch which may often be unable to produce seed! (This year is an exception with much local seed now available… Sept. 28th)
c) presence of suitable seed beds and supportive mycorrhizal associates
It seems that mycorrhiza (a network of fungal hyphae underground) are universally present whether there is an orchid or other plant associate present. (See Fungal Associates above.) The seed bed needs to be accessible, fine textured with sheltering stones or scrub. In such conditions Spiranthes can settle and form an association anywhere on suitable shore if the weather and water conditions are suitable? This is very much the pattern we observe here.
View of a shore on lower west side of L. Conn with the impressive Nephin Mountain close by. Many Spiranthes are found here.
A severe instance of shore damage. In front of a new house the Alder carr was removed. ALSO, the shore has been bulldozedin a fruitless effort to build a boat mooring. This is a good shore for Spiranthes… now gone from the damaged areas.
Listed here are plants commonly associated with Spiranthes romanzoffiana in the north Mayo lakes area. Also introducing the concept of ‘False Associate!’The Water Lobelia, an interesting and rare plant, is found in one site on Lough Conn along with Spiranthes. This plant is also found both in America and Ireland but its habits (water growing with seed release sometimes under water) mean that it has a totally different seed dispersal methodologyUnfortunately many of these associates still remain after Spiranthes is gone. Why? Probably because many are common plants and herbs which can grow and replace themselves rapidly if the site is damaged or grazed. If an early bud of Spiranthes is nibbled then that is the end of that specimen for that year. Mints and Pennywort and Creeping Jenny will simply regenerate and produce new flowers from a different part of the plant. So while these species are indicators that where they are growing may be a suitable habitat for Spiranthes that species may be absent due to early season on-shore grazing or destruction of the habitat or the takeover of the habitat by other species that suffocate the emerging Spiranthes.
The microclimate, or the ideal local weather conditions for a plant to thrive, is significant for Spiranthes. One shoreline may look unsuitable because it is too sloping, another may be flat and appear much more suitable but there are many features to be considered when trying to work out what the best microclimate is! We can summarise their needs (as we know them) as follows:•plants from previous years survive overground but, maybe, underwater! They are hard to detect.•if season is late and sites remain under water plants will eventually flower in the water.•if conditions are warm and dry plants will, evidently, start to flower much earlier. They can emerge and flower within a week.•If weather turns cold they will stop growing and may atrophy if weather remains hostile. The Irish climate in Summer seems much more prone to temperature variability than some parts of its home range.•As we have learned this Summer if the weather is too hot these orchids can die very quickly.•Aspect and access to sunlight has not proved vital as Spiranthes has grown on all 4 shores of L. Conn.•The umbrella effect seems very important with many plants under Royal Fern, Myrtle or small Alder bushes.Many of the sites on Lough Conn where Spiranthes numbers were good in past years were on the Eastern shore, open to the westerly winds — with seeds from afar? The direction of the prevailing wind may have been a significant factor in their occurrence? However, many of these specimens have now been lost due to more on-shore grazing on that more heavily farmed side of the lake. Shelter of some sort sometimes seems to be important, whether it’s for protection from grazing, or from the heat of the sun? Around small groups of Spiranthes there is usually some form of shelter, an Alder or Myrtle bush, large or small rocks (shelter and warmth), or other vegetation. High vegetation, though, will inhibit growth and there probably is a critical balance between cut/grazed vegetation and vegetation that is too high to allow the plants to rise above it? Spiranthes may occur on a stony shore with mud underneath, whereas it may not so often be seen on a dry stony shore. Water, in Ireland anyway, appears to be an important consideration for a suitable habitat and microclimate. All of the Spiranthes found around the Mayo lakes are pretty close to water. Many will occur on a line which corresponds to a previous Autumn’s water level.
Comparative microclimate analysis:
In Lough Allen Spiranthes appeared to be very vulnerable to drowning as that lake’s water level varies widely due to extensive rain and many rivers flowing off a ring of mountains, but also from the artificial holding back of water at the sluices on the lake outlet maintained to allow boat navigation in the Summer. Spiranthes in Lough Allen were often straggly, and small and were frequently flooded in Summer floods.In the Mayo lakes, the water levels do not vary quite as much, and there appears to be a variety of very suitable habitats where the plant can flourish. This year (2018) numbers were not only good, the population appeared to be replenished after the first 'crop' in early July. Newly budding plants were seen up to the first week of August. In North America, we have documentation to show that Spiranthes romanzoffiana can occur at heights of 2,000 meters, in dry upland valleys, and on the slopes of mountains and in fields away from water. Hundreds of these orchids can grow in a small area. We are excited when we see a group of 5 or 10 in a square metre! Clusters of two Spiranthes growing together ('twins') are common. However, threes are uncommon, and we have only one cluster of 4 which appears each year. In North America, they can be found in tight clusters like a carpet.
Water Level at Corryosla, NW corner of Lough Conn, Summer2018
As of today (27th August 2018) the Jetstream is leaving Ireland and moving further north. So after a rainy weekend we can expect a dryish week but cooler. The North Atlantic section of the Jet Stream is originating between North Canada and southern Greenland — hence our coolish wet weather. One of the best places to see present Jetstream data is HERE. (NetweatherTV) Today’s chart is reproduced on RIGHT.This is part of an animation. If you follow the link (above) you can see the forecast changes in the stream’s location and strength. This is a very useful tool in giving us an early warning of impending heavy rain and allowing us to collect data if an early flooding event seems likely in the west of Ireland.Water Data:Another very useful service is provided by the OPW (Irish Office of Public Works. WaterLevel.ie provides instant water level readings on lakes and rivers around Ireland. By and large, the level at which Spiranthes grows is constant so we can predict flooding this way.
Spiranthes will not grow if vegetation is very high and lush, but neither can it grow if the area is grazed. Sheep, and horses particularly, appear to like the taste of Spiranthes flowers as we have often seen a 'topped' Spiranthes in an area where other flowers are ignored... There appears to be a fine balance between non-grazing and over grazing. Grazing any time at the start of a year may have consequences. If the area concerned is grazed in May some established Spiranthes may be able to survive; the plants will probably be above ground but the flowering bud will not have significantly developed. New plants from seed will not have emerged at this time. In the past, we believed that grazing up to the end of June would be fine — and that was the standard advice — but the Spiranthes Life Cycle Study conducted many years ago shows that Spiranthes are well developed at that stage and any nipping of the bud will end that plants growth for the year? In our survey of Lough Conn this year, some areas of the shoreline were intensively grazed. Where fenced-in areas had cattle, or sheep present on the shoreline, we did not access these places. It was evident that the vegetation had been grazed right down and that there was little possibility of Spiranthes surviving there. Other 'good' sites that had been grazed fairly recently generally had no Spiranthes on them but occasionally Spiranthes were found in very small numbers hidden in the shelter of small Alder trees or Myrtle bushes. Such locations may have a good display of ‘herbs’, i.e small flowering plants (like Mint, or Lesser Spearwort) that can quickly replace any flowers that are eaten. But each Spiranthes plant can only produce one flower per annum.The Lagoon at the north end of Lough Conn, which was damaged and grazed in 2016 by a herd of cattle that broke in, is this year back to being a great site for Spiranthes. Despite the heatwave and the low water level on Lough Conn — see Image at Introduction — there was enough moisture and small channels within this spectacular site for the Spiranthes to appear in great numbers again.At Lough Cullin, the field beyond the sandy beach (nearest to Pontoon) is occupied by cattle and we don't access this any more. In 2012 and 2013, there were good numbers in this field , some quite a distance away from the shoreline, quite happily growing in grass — an unusual and probably temporary — habitat for this species in Ireland.
Conservation and Farming
It is hard to get a balance between Conservation and farming. In some areas, traditional farming has been taken over by specialist practices such as tree growing, pet farms, or zoos for children and tourists, organic farming etc. There has also been more emphasis in recent years on conservation practices for payment of agricultural grants. However, protection of habitat and biodiversity is an EU priority and this is part of the reason why distribution of rare species are painstakingly recorded. This information is vital to Farmers and Agricultural Consultants in working out their conservation policies and grant applications. With regard to Spiranthes, many good sites have been cleared and bulldozed, wherever it occurs. This seems to be as much private development as farming and the landowners often don't know that they have a rare species on their land. Spiranthes can grow on land that is marginal land for a farmer — possibly just the edge of a lake along a shoreline. It is a pity to allow modern heavy cattle onto such shores as they do much damage and the benefit to them would seem little? Cattle can access the water via a fenced area allowing species such as Spiranthes (and other vulnerable and important wild plants) to thrive.
Ripping up Alders:
Alder trees and bushes are often targeted on flat shores used for grazing. We have seen them pulled up by heavy machinery in species rich shorelines leaving unsightly exposed boulders and pebble where there was once grass. This is a special niche for S. romanzoffiana and re-claiming such shoreline may prove pointless as the Alders will quickly return. Alders are unique trees in that they are tolerant of flooding and enrich rough areas by releasing Nitrogen via bacteria found on their roots. This is why rich green grass is found in association with Alders and rushes die off close to an Alder hedgerow. They have an important role in shore protection and erosion control in these stormy times and Alder carr does support species and shorelines. It also provides a barrier between farm fields and shoreline which can prevent run-off leading to reduction of water quality and/or eventually pollution of our lakes. It is appreciated that intensification of farming, with concerns over Brexit, is putting excessive pressure on all land users but it is vital too, in such times, that we do not make unrecoverable changes to our delicate natural balances. S. romanzoffiana is a valuable indicator of such changes!
Water Level Chart: This is taken from WaterLevel.ie with much appreciation to the OPW. Corryosla is the Water Level gauge for L. Conn. Nearby L. Cullin has a separate gauge and the water level is slightly lower as water flows southwards through these lakes and exits via the Moy River in SE Lough Cullin to flow north to the sea at Ballina. Water level has been close to the lowest measurable for most of this Summer.Green Line indicates settlement levelwhere water will start to flow into the channels of The Lagoon shown at the top of the page. No Spiranthes are at risk! Red Line indicates drowning levelwhere existing Spiranthes plants will start to be submerged and many specimens and their seeds may be lost.
Morphology and abundance
There seems to be a relationship between size of plants and their local abundance. Flowers found in a straight line parallel to the water’s edge tend to be small. They may well be first flowers after a long growth period underground. This is like ER; it will keep you alive but you won’t thrive until you get out under the sun! The sun of course triggers photosynthesis and this gives a massive boost to the strength of a flower. Also, these plants haven’t chosen where to be born. The place they land may not be ideal but it suffices to get them going. It’s the lucky ones that land on a good spot that thrive!Larger plants are probably plants that are 2 - 4 years old. They may occur on their own or they may be in clusters. Annual blooming and several months exposure to daylight strengthen their swollen stem/root or cormlet? We have proof of this in a cluster of 3 + 1 (a very recognisable pattern) that re-emerges every year) on one of the outer sand islands in the main L. Cullin colony.LEFT A very strong specimen growing on the north shore of L. Cullin, in an area with few Spiranthes. The thickness of the stem and the size of the leaves are reminiscent of a Marsh Orchid and we suspect this plant may be many years old.The bigger specimens are often in pairs or clusters as they have gone through a number of years of flowering and then producing lateral buds. The great weather of 2018 has undoubtedly contributed to a high level of bud production, a sturdiness in many specimens and an evident ready production of seed — all of which bodes well for the future of the species in secure habitat areas.
Fertilising agents are mainly bees but flies and butterflies have also been seen delving into the honey-pot that these sweet orchids offer. Presence of Bees, such as these Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascorum), is best seen in warm evenings. (Photos 8 - 9pm 2nd August). The two pictures (LEFT) are of a bee enthusiastically feeding, then being unable to fly, landing on a rock and failing to climb back up the flower. Over fed or drunk; it looked like the latter? This bee (or a similar bee) was certainly very attracted to this flower over a 1 hr. period.a fertilised Spiranthes flower head
After fertilisation the appearance of the flower head undergoes rapid change (RIGHT). This specimen is showing clear signs or ribbing in the ovary towards the bottom of the flowering spike. This plant was photographed on the 22nd of August and probably started flowering early in July, giving it 8 weeks to get to this stage. This is longer than we have ever been able to follow these orchids and this happily fertile Spiranthes (in the middle of a car park) is one of many observed at this time. The ribbing, of course, is due to the process of seed production developing in a dry and protected environment. Seeds have been seen and we hope to reproduce some reasonable images of locally produced Spiranthes seed shortly. This will be a first for us and we know of few records of seed production in Ireland over the past 10 years. It is very encouraging.
The other way of doing it!
Now, based on own research of many years on Lough Allen and the north Mayo Lakes, it is evident how this species develops and reproduces asexually. Nearly all S. romanzoffiana plants produce ‘lateral buds’ towards the end of the flowering season — our habitual wet season. The intent of these buds is to split from the parent plant, develop a new root/cormlet — we are confused over exact title— produce new leaves to obtain nutrients that Autumn and then survive over the Winter and produce a new independent plant adjacent to the parent plant in the next season. In Lough Conn one family living together has been seen for 4 years and still going strong! This is in a very well protected area used for recreation purposes but a considerable distance from the bathing area.
2018 Lateral Buds:
Nearly all Spiranthes studied this year have been seen to produce lateral buds in August. These buds are growing rapidly and with weather set fairly dry for September they may well reach a good side and actively grow they root system. Next years promises well for these vegetative offspring.
Conservation Zones at Lough Conn
Botanists and the wider community
A.. B.. C.. K...
Habitats exemplifying Spiranthes
Some of the plant species that are found in association with S. romanzoffiana are shown individually ABOVE.On RIGHT we show two common habitats with several key associates present together. The first is a sheltered shoreline where the population is established along with small bushes (Willow, Myrtle and Alder) and very often with continuous backshore of Royal Fern and tall grasses. S. romanzoffiana loves the shelter this provides but it will eventually force out the orchid — though winter storms may control the fern?Spiranthes romanzoffiana routinely has a life of 4 - 5 years below ground (according to the literature) and, In the absence of high vegetation or disturbance Spiranthes may survive for 4-5 years above ground. The development of the species is slow underground — but fast overground — especially during good Summers with many warm sunny days when it photosynthesizes and returns nutrients to its roots.Lower RIGHT:This image shows where the normal water level occurs in Winter (50 percentile level). Behind is high vegetation, in front is a bare stone shore. The current water level this July to September was much lower. It is a stony gravelly shore with only short herby vegetation due to the scouring action of waves at other times of the year.This is a ideal example of a ‘colonising site’ where Spiranthes first settles on being washed ashore from the lake. Orchids, here, will be young, will parallel the shore or occur in groups. They may be destroyed in subsequent Winters as these shores are vulnerable to erosion without a binding cover of larger shrubs and grasses.It’s not often we see so many specimens together. There were 22 plants recorded in the immediate vicinity of the five Spiranthes shown here. This is rare, is very rewarding, and simply illustrates the sheer amount of wind-borne seed that must be present in the West of Ireland in many Autumn seasons.
2018 has been a stunning year for this Orchid in the West of Ireland. The weather, temperature and water levels have been ideal — almost too hot for a period in July — allowing plants to appear and thrive (where undisturbed) in many corners of the 2 great north Mayo Lakes. It has been the best opportunity afforded in 15 years to study reproduction in this species. Two forms of generating new plants are in progress…•Sexual reproduction•Vegetative reproduction.
Development Stages of S. romanzoffiana seed.
The earliest flowers emerged about the 1st of July. Two months later these flowers are finished but the good News is… THEY have released copious SEED! Amazingly, as soon as they reach this stage the parent plants seem to have withered and disappeared very rapidly. The specimen ABOVE were in a public car park where they survived unhindered by cars and campers for 7 weeks!The appearance of mature flowers alter depending on whether they are fertilised or not. In past years they were largely un-fertilised, in our experience. Undoubtedly, the odd plant was able to survive August rains to release seeds, but it must have been a very rare phenomenon. This year (2018) the weather has been kind and most plants in the study area are seeding or have seeded (September 7th).The signs to watch out for… The colour coding refers to the picture above:1.The flowers die.2.Bands (2) appear longitudinally along the seed capsule. (Mechanism to eject seed?)3.Ridges appear on the more mature seed capsules as the seed tubes produce seedsIt is evident when a specimen has ‘set seed’. The bract and tepals turn orange/brown and will rapidly shrivel; their job is done! Spiranthes romanzoffiana seeds are small but have a large surface area to enable them to be dispersed widely by the wind — but are still just about visible to the naked eye if caught on something like a microscope slide. Two photographs are reproduced below; the seeds growing rapidly in size as they mature…
Each orchid seed is minuscule [lengths as small as 0.05 mm in Anoectochilus imitans (Arditti and Ghani, 2000)]. A mature S. romanzoffiana seed is about half a millimetre in length, barely detectable with the native eye and they drift up and down in even the gentlest of breezes. It has no nutritional reserves, is elongated and flattened with a prominent yellow nucleus visible. They have been shown to be able to withstand very low temperatures (as found in the upper atmosphere) for a period. The shape and structure of the seed is designed to facilitate wind dispersal. Without nutrients (i.e the starch found in grasses or the fruit of trees) the seed is ill prepared to grow so it is essential for the germinating seed to undergo mycorrhization in order to develop. The small cells visible in the above photograph are, probably, the basic packing cells of the seed. Could the darker brown mesh be mycorrhiza already attached to the seed; this would imply that this relationship is developed while seed is still being developed in the flowering plant? This is all hypothetical and we would welcome expert opinion on this. [Contact US]The established seed grows into a mass of differentiated cells called a protocorm, and remains in this form for a period that can extend up to several years until leaves are, eventually, produced. During this period of their life, many orchids are underground and rather than producing carbon through photosynthesis like most autotrophic plants, they obtain all of their energy from fungal hyphae (pelotons). Therefore, before the production of leaves, all orchids go through a stage of their life-cycle in which they are dependent. i.e gaining nutrients from a fungal partner in the soil, rather than autotrophic (self-reliant) plants. Much of the literature (we are beginning to explore) seems to suggest there is a long term commensal relationship between orchids and ground fungi.
New Territories in Europe
If we compare last year’s Jet Stream with this year’s Jet Stream, their positions are somewhat different. This is self-evident from the weather we have had in Ireland, warm (hot) from May onwards, modest rain in August, and still dry with low water levels on local Spiranthes beds.2017 was an ideal year for the hypothesis of Trans-Atlantic stocking of Irish Spiranthes. This years conditions have been warm because the Jet Stream has been to the north of us, by and large. It has been very variable but rarely in a direct line from Orchid sites in Labrador and Newfoundland. So should we be expecting greater colonies to develop in Scotland, its Islands? How about the Faeroes and even Scandinavia where the plant has been, to date, unknown.
When did they arrive?
One unsolved mystery still unexplained is when did they arrive. We tend to assume they were always here; other researchers say, 500 years. There must be proof! They occur near water; a wide variety of seeds are found in turf and other substrates. Typically grass seeds and tree seeds measure the change of conditions over the millenia and reflect the arrival of humans. But these are bigger seeds containing much sustenance in the in the form of grains or nuts. Maybe the Spiranthes seeds are just too small and vulnerable to ever be preserved?Another mystery to investigate next year…
Lateral Buds being produced in Lough Cullin, 22 August 2018!
The surprising feature about laterals buds this year are their sheer abundance and their rapid development. Nearly every plant examined is producing lateral buds. Up to 2 or 3 buds may be produced depending on the vigour of the parent plant and the local conditions. This should ensure, in years to come, many clusters of S. romanzoffiana occurring around Lough Conn and L. Cullin. (UPDATE: 9 specimens have been logged and observed, today, with a view to a new overwintering study on L. Cullin. More details, we hope, in 2019! 6th October 2018)
Rapid Development of Lateral Buds:
The picture above demonstrates a typical 2018 plant with multiple buds issuing from it and growing rapidly. This would seem to be the normal pattern for the species but one not readily observed in Ireland. It explains those marvellous images one sees from North America of large ‘clumps’ of this species which, also, routinely seem to be growing on hilly ground well away from water? In Ireland (specifically L. Allen, L. Conn and L. Cullin) most lateral buds are flooded shortly after they are produced. This doesn’t kill them and they will happily survive underwater for the Winter. They always remain above ground and do not wither like the parent plant even when flooded — but it must impair their development with photosynthesis and growth stopping until the following Spring when the plants re-emerge from the flood waters.
Adaptation for Survival.
Their tolerance to such variable weather pattern is probably the reason why they are found here at all. That, and their very light seeds, enable a plant native to another continent to reach Ireland and survive in conditions somewhat different to their apparently typical environment in North America. In that continent the amount of seed produced is so vast that the plants are widely dispersed and do not seem to need to use the water concentrating method that Irish plants have adopted to maintain a significant population in this Country. One wonders has this pattern always re-stocked Ireland or, in milder periods, did this plant routinely provide its own local seed? With weather like this year’s and much less land pressure this would seem quite conceivable.
Early Seeds (more images later)Plants finished flowering and showing signs of seeds…Vegetative reproduction by Lateral Buds
This is a rare species vulnerable to damage. So why do we publish Maps? It is simple; more loss of plants has been due in the past to people not knowing about their existence. These can be diminutive plants for much of their lives and if they are to thrive they need to be guarded. Also, thanks to the Flora Protection Orders they are protected from interference.All landowners we have met are full of curiosity and where we have asked for help it has been readily given. GLAS, an Irish Biodiversity protection measure is open to farmers to claim benefits from conserving this species on their land.Without knowledge it is impossible to protect this species or to plan a conservation strategy that benefits plant conservation and the landowner at the same time!
It has been a rewarding year for our work. Nothing quite as pleasurable to be alone on a quiet lake in late Summer with a golden evening sun setting into the Atlantic as we finalise a days work recording and photographing this unique species. One of the sites we checked was at Errew Abbey. This is an ancient ruin on the northern end of a peninsula on the upper western shore of Lough Conn. It is a known area for small numbers of Spiranthes to occur — fewer this year than when last surveyed 2 years ago! The habitat is very suitable but grazing patterns have been intensified and we suspect that this would be a prolific site for the orchid if that critical band of shore between low water level and average Winter height water level could be protected.
Did they ever?
With beautiful surroundings and remarkable nature close to their Abbey, one wonders did these Monks and scholastics ever sit and admire the beauty around them, wondering where such plants came from? It is a very Catholic theology to see the proof of a God in the order and beauty of the world.There are no records in any of the texts, or illuminated books from early Monastic times, or even later secular literature, that refer to a little white flower that suddenly appeared close to lakes and graveyards and pilgrimage sites. One could imagine they might have come to the attention of such a peaceful religious community? They could have thought of them as coming from God, as these Monks knew nothing of America…But, were they in Ireland at that time? There is no reason to think they weren’t. They have a stable and consistent pattern to explain their occurrence in the west of Ireland.
1. SUMMARY: What is all the fuss about?
We have an addiction to these plants. It is like a hunt or a pursuit except it is done with cameras, mapping tools, and we leave no trace. It is undoubtedly a hobby but it is useful work as Ireland (at present) is changing and developing at a frightening speed. Its economy is recovering, its markets are changing (a Brexit effect), and there is more pressure than ever on our delicate and changeable environment. The plant we are studying is very vulnerable to such changes and its survival is, indeed, a very good marker of changing climate and changing socio-economic conditions. Over many recent years we have been concerned about degradation of water quality and increasing Cyanophyceae blooms particularly in Lough Allen. (See ‘Pollution Watch at Lough Allen’) We are not so closely associated with that lake now and are working on two large lakes further west — Lough Cullin and Lough Conn. The water in all these lakes, including L. Allen, now seems improved and such blooms that occur are now very small and very rare. It seems that work being undertaken to better manage and monitor waste water is paying dividends. But protection of the environment is still part of the reason why we make a fuss about a very little plant — as an indicator!The other main reason is heritage. Heritage in Ireland often refers to cultural issues such as language and music and traditional values, but it is important that our Natural Heritage is also respected.Spiranthes romanzoffiana, due to its habitat and lifestyle clearly indicates how Ireland is doing in protecting its varied environment and elusive wildlife. These both feed into tourism, one of this island's biggest businesses. Ireland has a unique association with S. romanzoffiana perhaps even more so than Scotland — its only other home this side of the Atlantic. We at WildWest.ie would like to keep it that way.This year we are coming across more sites where this orchid or its habitat is being damaged. Of course, either form of damage is meant to be prevented by a Flora Protection Order (part of Wlidlife Legislation) but the effectiveness of this is limited by people not knowing of the plant’s presence, pressure on grazing leading to more animals on lake shores which does eliminate species and may contribute to pollution, and the sheer difficulty of monitoring unplanned activities on isolated shores. This is another reason why WildWest monitors this species wherever we can and why we publish this data. Much more damage to the environment is done accidentally than the slim possibility of people mis-using our information to harm this Orchid. Farmers, also, can benefit from its presence on their land through the GLAS Farm Support scheme which refers to all Flora Protection Order species; we are very happy to inform any such landowners or Agricultural Consultants of this species status on their lakeshore holdings.
Most of the eastern shore of Lough Conn was surveyed in July and August, and some of the west shore. (See Map BELOW.) We surveyed a number of new areas of the shore, many of which were not easily accessible, and not disturbed. We were rewarded, in a number of these sites, by finding Spiranthes in small, or good numbers. Some of the areas surveyed had no Spiranthes present and this, in some cases was due to to the habitat not being suitable (too rocky, too sloping or vegetation too high). In other cases the sites were heavily grazed. Some sites had cattle on them, and we didn't survey these areas as it was evident that there was little likelihood of Spiranthes surviving. Other areas had been recently grazed, and we surveyed these areas but found little (2) or no SpiranthesWe surveyed our original site (from 2012 onwards) on Lough Cullin, northwards from a car park on the north -eastern corner of the lake. Numbers of Spiranthes there were very good, with several tight groups of 3's and at least one group of '4's'. As in other years, many of the plants were in an extensive beach area, which contains numerous little grassy 'islands' scattered around the sand. These islands provide a good habitat for Spiranthes, being high enough to withstand possible summer flooding and giving shelter and protection with their low vegetation. Traveling south along the shoreline from this North-eastern site, Spiranthes were found in reasonable numbers along the grassy shoreline and the two sandy beaches where cars can park. Other areas of Cullin on the eastern shore, the southern shore, and western shore proved fruitless but south of Pontoon some more were found.Incidentally, we also did a quick survey at a few Spiranthes sites at our former survey lake, Lough Allen (from 2008 to 2015), in August. Numbers were small in sites where they were formerly plentiful. We saw 6 in Rossmore (32 in 2015) and 10 in Kilgarriff — a site which was bulldozed around 2010 and where numbers are creeping back again. No Spiranthes were found at Annagh Lake (heavily grazed) or Holly Island (shore disturbance by traffic).
The Map below is provided courtesy of ExpertGPS (our GPS software), MapBox and OpenStreet Maps. Together they provide a first rate service to hard pressed voluntary Botanists. Many thanks!
Interpreting the Map:
We have reproduced this map at a small scale. The object is not to show individual plants but to show areas in which they occur or are missing! There are 660 specimens logged here though obviously the scale is too small to show them all. All markers refer to single S. romanzoffiana specimens and all dates and exact locations are recorded. This information can be made available to landowners, Local Authorities, Farm Advisors etc. Most of our records are from areas of Lough Conn and Cullin that are not heavily farmed. The east shore of L. Conn only produced 6 specimens despite diligent searching. These areas had large numbers in previous years. This was always due to onshore grazing, sometimes cattle but as often small groups of horses. It seems that these are left loose on the shore but, unfortunately, they do a lot of damage. We have seen many shores that seemed suitable for Spiranthes but none were present. Marsh Orchids were frequent; horse don’t seem to like the taste of them? Areas not surveyed are highlighted in pink; other shores have been covered and if no marker is present no Spiranthes were found. These lakes have a European significance in terms of protecting this species. We would love to hear from people anxious to take measures to protect the species or to avail of a GLÁS scheme and would help with any advice or knowledge we have.
Extreme low water outside The Lagoon, north east Lough Conn
The Lagoon where water floods in regularly, a ‘hatchery for Spiranthes’
One of the Older Specimens of the year. Growing in long grass so it grew well.
Areas NOT surveyed!TOTAL Spiranthes present = 660
Spiranthes Habitat south west L. Conn
Prolific Shoreline with low vegetation on stony shore.
No Spiranthes on this adjacent shore due to stones, steeperslope, and dense vegetation on back shore..
Natural Disturbance at play… This was a new (established) area first recorded last year. The area behind and in front of the camera had prolific orchids. The damage to the bank by Winter storms removed most of them. One remains here along with many more in a sheltered area around the distant bend.
D.. G.. P..
Water levels at L. Conn…
HOPEFULLY this Page is now fit to read… ALL COMMENTS, Ideas, and Opinions on this wonderful plant and its lifestyle would be very welcome. Best wishes… David and FrancesCONTACT DETAILS are at top of Page.Wildwest.ie
The phenomenal Summer/Autumn still continues. We have taken the opportunity to present some further images reflecting this season and, to a degree, relevant to Spiranthes. S. romanzoffiana is still present above ground but getting harder to find. Most plants have produced and released seed. In view of the sheer numbers found this year and the ‘gentle’ conditions of the late Summer, we believe many of these seeds will have ripened and been released into a benign environment. At the time of our last visit the orchids were, mostly, still above water but close enough to allow seed dispersal by water. Substrate and conditions were ideal for surroundings to act as a seed-bed and, assuming mycorrhiza were present, we see no reason why a large new population of this orchid should not be produced in due course.
Two interesting new Discoveries
The large landscape (RIGHT) features the very important western shore of L. Conn where a large majority of specimens recorded this year have been being found. It has a range of habitats and a great variety of shore width and orientation. The area is largely undisturbed with a large area of forestry protecting the vital shore zone. Mainly mixed mature deciduous wood, then a small coniferous plantation (back from shore and not impeding orchids), with a large ribbon of Alder carr towards the north. This shore however has been exposed to strong wave action last Winter and this has washed away large numbers of established orchids. However, these losses have been replaced by gains in other undamaged areas. Some of the Alder carr has been uprooted to support onshore grazing!
BELOWThis is a variation on the standard S. romanzoffiana model. It is 1 out of 661 specimens we have examined in the Mayo Lakes this year. Variations in this Spiranthes are very rare. The significant features are:1.The Stem is kinked with a leaf and a flower at each node.2.The main flowers at the top of the spike have duplicated/split upper petals or sepals. This creates a fussy frilly appearance to the flower quite different to the normal straight stemmed simple flowered norm.We have referred this, and other photographs, to Leif Bersweden an Orchid lover, an Author and, presently, a Ph.D. student at Kew. Many thanks, Leif. His observations are… “This looks to me like a normal S. romanzoffiana with various genetic mutations in key floral pathways. For example, there are mechanisms to prevent flowers appearing at every node with the leaves as you've described, but these pathways can be knocked out with simple genetic mutations. It's certainly unusual though! I suspect it will be back next year, yes. Hope that helps!”
RIGHTYellow Eyed GrassSisyrinchium californicumA new species for us, this was found, growing in good numbers adjacent to the Spiranthes described on left. It is a native of the west coast of North America but was introduced to Britain in the 18th century. It is irregularly recorded on the west coast of Ireland with a few inland locations. Its location, in Lough Cullin, is surprising. Its seeds are much larger than S. romanzoffiana but it is conceivable that its nuts (similar to Blue-eyed Grass) could have been carried by water from private houses across a road and onto this shore?Also a member of the Iris family, it is late flowering and may be another benefiter of a dry late year in the West of Ireland. A charming little plant!
One particular L. Conn habitat with largely stony lower shore going to lush back shore. The orchids settle here and will survive here unless shore is either overgrown or washed away!
Images of Spiranthes Reproduction:
A. Strong specimens, finishing flowering and starting to set seed, favoured by a long dry Summer with no flooding of their habitat.B. Early photo of the first seeds we have seen produced in the West of Ireland. (Aug 2018) Many seeds have been produced and released into positive survival conditions this year.C. Vegetative Reproduction with Lateral Buds. This is the mainstay of survival of the species in Ireland. Practically every Spiranthes will produce 1 to 3 of these in parallel with the flowering season. This will sustain a colony but not expand it as these lateral buds even when they seperate are always associated with the original plant and its location. However, they do survive flooding over a long period very well.D. Mychorriza occupying cells in the stem of an orchid. These are the life savers for the bare seeds released by Orchids. These seeds are so tiny and devoid of food that all orchids use fungal partners to bring nutrition quickly to seeds. You could say they infect the seeds and plant… but this is vital to the survival of orchids from seed. The mycorrhiza provides food to the seed and the grown orchid may provide carbon to the fungus through photo-synthesis. Orchids devoid of chlorophyll are totally dependent on mycorrhiza throughout their lives.This stunning photograph comes from the Czech Institute of Botany, Department of Mycorrhizal Symbioses. A very succinct outline of the role of mycorrhiza is given on their Orchid Mycorrhiza page.We really appreciate the stunning work being done in this field in Europe and fondly recall a very pleasant short visit by 3 leading Czech Botanists to Lough Allen in 2013.
The ambulatory corridor between the open square of Errew Abbey and the small dark cells on the Left. One can envisage the Monks, young and old, working this place and then committing themselves to prayers and a quiet, thoughtful existence — perhaps in silence?
1 October 2013: Some of the first lateral buds we studied at Lough Allen. Note how much later these buds were than those seen this year. Images of one of the many triple buds recorded in L. Cullin are shown in Reproduction section towards end of this report.
The weather was both kind and harsh to Spiranthes this year. (See Met Éireann Report.) On a positive note, the early very warm (heatwave) in late June and early July may have been the reason we saw our first Spiranthes so early (July 5th). This is the earliest date that we have ever seen them growing. Plants were well established by the second week of July almost everywhere we surveyed. However, as the temperatures continued to reach the high 20's and low 30’s, the Spiranthes flowers started to wither, much earlier than in previous years. A respite, in the form of intermittent light showers in late July, seemed to trigger further growth, and many new plants were found that were fresh and budding; it was like a second crop?In 10 years of studying this species this is the first year in a long time that we are heading into the Autumn with the flowers decaying normally instead of being drowned under many inches of late Summer floods. This bodes well for possible production of native seed as many plants are still strong and upright but have lost nearly all their petals with their clearly visible ovaries exposed. How this progresses will be updated when we return to this topic in September.The weather, though at present (August 16th) is mixed with some rain and some sun, still seems to favour the Spiranthes life cycle and the dreaded summer floods have not arrived. There is a possibility of heavy rains in the near future due to the tail end of Tropical Storms coming from the Caribbean; hopefully it will pass over Ireland quickly as there is still much work to do in observing ovaries for the possibility of seed production. Such seeds won’t survive if the plants are drowned and nascent seeds lost into the flood...
The Jetstream and Irish Water levels
The ever popular Jetstream — it is now starting to dominate Irish conversation — is more erratic than ever this year, dipping south across Ireland to bring colder wet weather and then returning steeply north often west of Ireland and veering north easterly towards Norway and then up into the arctic. As this generally northwesterly stream passes back and forth over Ireland the country is divided between a cooler damper north west and a warmer south east. However, overall, it has been an exceptionally dry and warm Summer. The most significant one since we started studying S. romanzoffiana. This has two significant Spiranthes effects. There has been no direct high speed link from east Canada (Labrador and Newfoundland) to the west coast of Ireland. Last year, on many occasions, that wind traveled directly across the Atlantic between those two points bringing with it (hopefully) many seeds of S. romanzoffiana. Wouldn't it be strange if, suddenly, this species started being recorded from Norway or in EU countries where it has never been known before?Fortunately, present evidence suggests we may expect a good crop of native seed. If the orchid beds remain un-flooded into September and, bearing in mind the early flowering season, we may see a large amount of home grown seeds being released into the ecosystem. Of course, there will be the delay due to growth underground and, also, Winter storms may disrupt the seed beds these seeds end up in. Interesting times… See the section on Fertilisation and Seed Release towards the end of this report for further updates.
How flooding benefits one site.
Below, we reproduce an image of a place we call the Lagoon. It was first found 3 years ago and continues to host large numbers of Spiranthes. It, and adjoining lagoons are features of a shallow sandy shore, a northern placement on L. Conn open to winds with a southerly component breaching shore line sand barriers and flooding the flat transitional land behind. There are several of these lagoons, one with a permanent pond in it. Another totally dry, and this one which floods and then dries out. When it floods water flows through numerous channels between sandy tussocks and this provides a very credible seedbed for any Spiranthes seeds carried in by the flood. Also, because of the very narrow protected entrance, any strong storms will have their waves abated as the water builds up and slowly flows into the arena. This is the way we imagine it; we have not yet been there in a Winter storm!The Lagoon. A natural haven for Spiranthes romanzoffiana.