The orchid season is drawing to a close. At the start, I was somewhat despondent. Having returned to Somerset in early 2019, I relished the chance to revisit my childhood botanising haunts more frequently. I knew where the orchids used to be. Time and time again, I returned disappointed. Intensive farming and invasive plants seemed to have taken hold where I expected to find orchids, bluebells, primroses and violets. I am pleased to report that the year is ending on a high thanks to Autumn Lady’s-tresses.
A Flicker of White
Spiranthes spiralis was a chance discovery on a Bank Holiday walk in a very familiar area. I was actually thinking about heading home, when I sat down to eat an apple. It was a bright and breezy day. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of flickering white in the grass. I knelt down and discovered the exquisite, white flowers of Autumn Lady’s-tresses. I had no idea that they could even be found at this location.
There were lots of grockles about. Thankfully, they were oblivious to my excitement and blind to the flowers. The tiny orchids were hard to see even when I was right on top of them. I eventually found about 10-12 flower spikes.
Unrecorded for over 20 Years
On my return home, I read up about these delicate orchids in my identification guides. I told my local Somerset Recorder of my surprise find. I thought she would know all about them as this is a popular site. Can you imagine my astonishment when she revealed some time later that Autumn Lady’s-tresses hadn’t been recorded at this site since 1997? Wow!
Nature as Master Baker
Spiranthes spiralis is an extraordinarily delicate and pretty plant. The foliage and stem is greyish-green. The braid-like pattern up the stem is the origin of the vernacular name. They made me think of marzipan. They seemed unreal, like the delicate sugar paste floral creations made by master bakers. Nature is quite the craftswoman.
Spiranthes spiralis favours short, dry, nutrient-poor grassland. High nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the soil from intensive farming threaten its survival. It is usually found on calcareous soils and sand dunes, growing in symbiosis with root fungi or mycorrhizae. The plants can spend many years underground without flowering. The flowering phase at summer’s end is short and easily missed.
I revisited the spot some weeks later. The flowers were no longer present. The area had been grazed by rabbits and, possibly also, cattle. Numerous rosettes were now obvious to me. It is possible that there will be a gap of a few years until the flowers of Autumn Lady’s-tresses, Spiranthes spiralis, are seen at this site again. It was great to end the orchid season on such a high. Hope is revived that I will see the orchids of my childhood again next year.
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