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What to look for this week - Orchids are blooming

Published: 24 June 2020

Anyone who has been out and about in this glorious sunny weather cannot have failed to notice the sudden profusion of orchids along roadside verges, in meadows and even on the hill. So abundant are they in Shetland that I suspect we sometimes take them for granted. Yet in many parts of the UK stumbling across an orchid is a notable event!

Shetland is still rich in many flowering plants because agriculture here in the islands is not too intensive. Vast tracts of the mainland have become so heavily treated with inorganic fertilisers that just a few of our most competitive flowering plants remain; sadly, orchids were one of the first to disappear. Orchids are especially vulnerable to changes in land use as they are reliant on fungi for their existence. Orchid seeds require fungi to be able to germinate and grow; the seedling spends months, or even years, underground during which time it is totally dependent on nutrients (food) it obtains from the fungi.

Many folk are attracted to orchids because of their attractive flowers, these have evolved such intricate patterns to attract insects which will then carry pollen from one plant to another to ensure successful reproduction takes place. Have a close look – they really are a marvel.

Eleven species of orchid have been found here in Shetland although sadly one of these is almost certainly extinct. The Small White Orchid has not been seen here since the 1800s when it was found on both Unst and Bressay – keep your eyes open as what a prize it would be to refind this in the islands. New discoveries are still made. In 2018, Jon Dunn who resides in Shetland and wrote the book Orchid Summer which incidentally is well worth a read, found Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid at a site in Northmavine. This is a member of the genus Dactylorhiza (the marsh and spotted orchids) and it is these that are so abundant just now. They are a complicated group as many of them hybridise with each other so its best only to try and identify typical examples.

The Heath Spotted which is pale pink or even whitish in colour with spotted leaves is our most common orchid and can be found on bogs, heathland and acid grassland. The Common Spotted is similar but grows in more nutrient rich grasslands or fens. It has three distinct lobes on the flower -all of which look are a similar size and shape unlike the Heath spotted which shows a much-reduced central lip bordered by two much broader, round outer lips. It’s easier if you get down on your hands and knees!

The dominant orchid in damper grassland is the Northern Marsh Orchid, which is altogether a much deeper magenta, almost purple colour. Where the ground-water is nutrient rich, this can sometimes be joined by the bright pink Early Marsh Orchid. This is a scarce plant though, so if you do find it a location and grid reference would be most welcome to help boost our knowledge of its distribution in the islands.

It will soon be time to look for the tiny Frog Orchid too which is particularly fond of short, grazed coastal grassland. It is declining rapidly on the mainland but still faring well here in Shetland. I still can’t really see the frog resemblance though.

What of the other species? The Lesser Twayblade is probably under-recorded and is an early flowerer – it has a fragile look and is typically hard to find among the heather that it usually grows within. The Bog Orchid is rare in the islands although its tiny size and habit of growing in wet acid bogs doesn’t help. It is still being found at new sites in the island, however, and the largest colony in Scotland numbering several hundred plants was found in Nesting a few years ago.

The Keen of Hamar is a good place to search for our other rare orchids. The Early Purple Orchid is restricted to the serpentine of Unst and Fetlar and the crystalline limestone of the Whiteness peninsula, while the Fragrant Orchid is found only at the Keen. That flowers a little later in the year (mid to late July) so if inter-island travel is allowed by then why not go and have a look.

It’s coffee-break time now and I think I’ll pop out in to the garden to enjoy the sun, and the Northern Marsh and Common Spotted Orchids that I have growing in my lawn. They’ll be busily trying to attract insects so they can produce large numbers of seed in the hope that one or two of them might find that fungus that will help them join the next generation.

Paul Harvey, Natural Heritage Officer, Shetland Amenity Trust - June 2020

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