Spring treasure 16: Bee orchids

Bee orchid 116/6/20 Sometimes I wonder whether sorrow and celebration are compatible, or if they are in fact so closely intertwined that celebration is hardly meaningful unless it is goes tightly hand in hand with its opposite. Hearing on Sunday night of the death of a musical colleague and friend, from whom the excitement of my musical future in Suffolk seemed barely separable, part of me was in no way inclined to continue with the celebration of bee orchids that I had begun a day earlier. But June has been a month of loss for me since my mother’s death a decade ago. There is an irony, and pain, in the contrast between the joy and busyness of the season and the emptiness of grief, but in some way I have also become accustomed to it; to the extent that it may be the cause of my being even more attuned to the small wonders going on around me every day. It somehow feels more important than ever to celebrate the little bee orchid. Perhaps it seems more of a miracle, more beautiful, than it did before.

Last June I was excited to find bee orchids growing in the field verge nearest my wildflower meadow. This year in March, my friend Mark spotted a bee orchid in my front lawn. I was dubious; but after a few seconds’ contemplation of the greenery around my feet, I replied, ‘well, if that is a bee orchid, so is this!’ And so a microscopic examination of the front lawn began, with a stick placed beside each orchid so that it wouldn’t be mown over. He was right, of course: they were bee orchids, and there were a lot of them. He also found what we now believe to be a common spotted-orchid (complete with oddly-placed and possibly controversial hyphen), having first thought it an early purple – which, incidentally, has also made me realise that the supposed marsh orchids at the Hobbets that I mentioned two years ago are more likely to be common spotted-orchids, though the two hybridise readily. If and when it flowers, we will be able to confirm its identity.

Through April and May we watched the progress of these orchids with excitement: their growth, then the appearance of flower buds within the rosette of their leaves, and Mark even watered them when he thought they might be suffering from the effects of heat and drought. I could only have been more excited if they had appeared in my wildflower meadow – a space, so I thought, dedicated to their wellbeing – instead of in the mown front lawn. I was vaguely hopeful that they might eventually appear in the meadow, but they would be hard to spot amongst the long grass and other tall plants until they flowered.

About two weeks ago, when the first of the bee orchids started to flower, Mark and I took a wander through the wildflower meadow, hoping to find some pyramidal orchids and also thinking that if there were any bee orchids, they might be visible by now. I found precisely none; Mark found 3. On the weekend, a friend’s 13-year-old daughter spotted a fourth. I counted 8 pyramidal orchids, though I was sure I would find more once they were properly in flower.

My dream has come true. The bee orchids have arrived. And they seem a good deal happier there in the damp grass than in the drier, more exposed conditions of the lawn, despite the fact there are (so far) fewer of them.

Bee orchid 2But I was struck by an interesting fact: all but one bee orchid and one pyramidal orchid were to be found on or at the edge of the path that I usually mow through the meadow. I hadn’t done it yet this year because I couldn’t bear to mow over all the flowering cowslips in April. Then I couldn’t bear to mow over the yellow rattle that colonised the path after this; and now there were orchids growing on it! There were clearly lessons to be learnt here. The orchids were telling me in no uncertain terms that they knew better what was required for their wellbeing than I did.

I cast my mind back to my mowing routines for the path and the rest of the meadow. There was no difference in cutting from early autumn to early spring; the difference began in spring and continued through the summer. The last few years, with the exception of this year, the path had been cut from March onwards, whereas the meadow had been cut and raked only in September and kept short from then until spring. I had chosen to cut in September rather than late July – both legitimate choices for wildflower meadows – because I wanted to give as many plants as possible the chance to flower and set seed. I also liked being amongst the tall plants and flowers at a time when the rest of the garden had already been strimmed short. But I hadn’t fully considered how this particular routine would affect plants differently, benefitting some over others.

The difference in plant species growing on the path is noticeable, even though I haven’t cut the path yet this year. The plants growing on it are small, low growing and delicate. The orchids are the tallest plant there. Those around the path, however, are already tall and bushy. The places where pyramidal orchids were growing in previous years, they now aren’t; they have moved onto the path and other areas where the ground is more open because of the presence of yellow rattle.

I belatedly looked up bee orchids to find out more about them, and was stunned to read that the flower mimics not only the look of a female bumblebee, but also her scent, to attract males. I was equally amazed by the fact that they may take as many as 6 years to progress from germination to flowering, and may only flower once in their lifetime, which accounts for their presence in large numbers in some years and scarcity in others. Could the orchids have been waiting that long in my lawn? Was it simply coincidence that we had found them the year they were ready to flower, or had I delayed their flowering by mowing over them for years since they germinated? The only ones that haven’t flowered this year are the common spotted-orchid (which may yet) and the few bee orchids that withered and apparently died, perhaps from the dry conditions.

I will never know exactly what has been taking place right under my nose, but cutting in late July, leaving the clippings for a few days for seeds to disperse, raking them all off, and then mowing the meadow for the rest of the growing year may possibly be the best way to encourage at least the earlier flowering orchids. It may also encourage other wildflowers that I haven’t yet seen in my meadow. But I don’t want to lose the possibility of late-flowering species, including common spotted-orchids which can flower into August, so perhaps I will hedge my bets and cut half the meadow in July and half in September. The early cutting will mean more work in late summer, but it will be worth it for the sake of my amateur experiment, the encouragement of a greater variety of wild flowers, and perhaps a few more bee orchids…