Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Banstead Downs' own Early Purple Orchids

With the snow lying thick and not so even outside, I have been going through a few pictures and came across some of Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula). I find this species intriguing. When I first was interested in wild flowers I knew it only from the damp woods of the Weald in Surrey, Sussex and Kent growing on clay (see picture at bottom of plants growing near Ockley, Surrey). Here it grows quite tall with relatively spindly spikes of flowers and leaves with variable degrees of spotting but rarely very intense. In places it forms carpets that in numbers come close to competing with the Bluebells growing at the same sites.

In later years, I discovered the species growing out in the open on more northern and western limestone at places like Hutton Roof Crags or the Purbecks. At these sites the species takes on a very different appearance, altogether more robust and striking with dense flower spikes seemingly more intensely coloured flowers and leaf spotting. On casual acquaintance they could be a totally different species.

In the back of my mind I had assigned all sorts of physical reasons for this difference in habit suggesting they may be mutually exclusive . I now realise that this is an artificial distinction and virtually anywhere you can see a wide range of "compactness". It still remained however that I had never seen O.mascula growing out in the open on the Downs or any other chalk site in the South East

Therefore I was astonished just a few years ago when someone showed me a colony of this species growing on Banstead Downs, astonished if only for the fact that I had been walking past them for years and not noticed them. There are about one hundred plants growing in a small area alongside one of the fairways on the golf course, on the edge of and just into light scrub and my excuse is that they are surpringly easy to miss.

In appearance they are more robust than the woodland plants, not surprisingly considering the very dry habitat and they are notable for the wide variability in flower colour, pattern and shape.

I assume the colony has been there for a long time but I have had real difficulty finding anyone who can provide definitive information. Whether it is a relic of a much larger population I do not know. If there is anyone out there with more knowledge about them, please let me know.

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