RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Wild orchid season opens

The wild orchid season has opened once again, drawing ever more enthusiasts out into the wild countryside to hunt for the 51 species in Britain, 26 (at least) of which are in Sussex.

I talked last year to an American now living in Sussex with his British wife who set out to find and photograph every one of them. He also searched farther afield, hoping to find rarities like the Ghost orchid (aka Spurred coralroot, Epipogium aphyllum) which seems to grow only in the Chilterns and has been seen only nine times in the past one hundred years.

Those who know where this peculiar flower occasionally surfaces will be sworn to the sort of secrecy that enabled Enigma to remain under wraps for so long. In June to September it sends up a thin, pale, ghost-like stem five inches (12cms) tall, at the top of which it hangs two to five tiny flowers that look like ladies’ bonnets of a bygone age. There are no leaves, but an underground root looking like a fragment of coral.

European botanists will find it from the Pyrenees to the Caucasian mountains but again, very sparingly. Meanwhile, our first Sussex orchids are out now and these are Shakespeare’s Purples which Ophelia may have had in her bouquet as she drowned herself in despair for Hamlet’s love. My wife says I am wrong – Ophelia had Purple loosestrife in her bouquet. The jury is out. These orchids were once so common that sacks full of the suggestive root tubers were sold in London markets as aphrodisiacs by herbalists.

The green and purple leaves opened in early March, and with striped leaves frightened countryfolk who thought they looked like coiled Adders. They were also called Goosey-ganders, Butcher’s meat, and Kite’s legs, with another 80 names which suggested all kinds of things to our ancestors.

Look for them till the second week of May on old downland such as Harting Hill, Cissbury, Heyshott and Firle. They will also grow willingly in well-managed coppice woods that are frequently opened up to the light, such as those around my home. Like all orchids they need unadulterated, natural soil that has seen no pesticide, herbicide or fertilizer disturbing the underground fungi on which the roots feed. They lure insects with their seductively coloured lips and scent which offer pseudo copulation.

Orchids enjoy a worldwide mystique across all but the arctic regions with up to 35,000 species, the second largest family in the world. But very few people have ever seen them. The Ghost orchid is just one of many that live secret lives far from the eyes of mere humans.