On a Chalk Hillside August 2020

Published: August 9, 2020

Posted on 09.08.2020 |
Added in Sheila May's Blog

Letting the grass grow 4:- Orchids in my grass
I said I would tell you all about the orchids growing in my grass.  Two months ago I showed you this photo of the spotted leaves of an orchid growing in my grass on 5th April:-

orchid leaves 82

The leaves appeared in the middle of a swathe of Mouse-ear Hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella), and in fact after barricading it off from himself to make sure it did not get mowed I spent the next several years checking all over the grass to see if I had any more.   As you can see the spotted fleshy leaves are quite noticeable (well they are if you crawl about with your nose about 30cm from the ground scanning the grass!)  I try and combine this search with harvesting the dandelion flowers on or around St George's Day to make wine with, so that I can mark them out before the first mowing of that bit of chalk hillside happens.  Eventually about four years later I discovered another set of spotty orchid leaves in ANOTHER patch of Mouse-ear Hawkweed!   This new orchid is in a patch towards the top of the grassy chalk slope, and the first one is towards the bottom of the slope.  I am going to show you a series of photos of the development of the flowers on each of these orchids, which come out at slightly different times (up to two weeks apart in development some years), and look slightly different as they go, making me think is it a Heath Orchid, or a Pyramid Orchid, or a Fragrant Orchid or a Broad-leaved Marsh Orchid, or a……but no, eventually they both look the same and are in fact the Common Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza fuschii.  (And though it is the most widespread orchid, I don't think its common at all, and I was and am VERY EXCITED that it has chosen to live in my grass!
The newer orchid starts its flower spike earlier than the original one lower down the slope.  Last year it was pushing up the spike at the beginning of May (notice the ring of chalk protecting it from the mower):-

top orchid shoot205 47

This is promising, but it takes three more weeks before the spike starts to colour – here on 25th May:-

top orchid flowershoot255 53

Then the flowers opening are more rapid – here it is on 31 May:-

top orchidflowershoo closegood315 31

The  Common Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza fuschii,  from lower down the slope is well behind this in development – see a shot of both orchids from 3 June – first the orchid from the bottom of the slope:-

bottom orchid flowershoot close36 29

And on the same day the orchid nearer the top of the slope:-

top orchid flowerclose36 96

As you can see the orchid lower down the slope is less than half out whereas the one from the top of the slope has most of its flowers out.  But what a difference in colour of the two flower spikes!  From the difference in colour alone you would not think these were the same type of orchid would you?  Some years the flower spike is also a different shape, being shorter on one than the other.  By 16 June the orchid nearer the bottom of the garden looks like this (note this orchid's barricades against the dreaded mower) :-

bottom orchidflowershoo 166 0

Most of its flowers are out, to the same degree that the one further up the slope had been out on 3 June – but the colour difference between the two flower spikes is still very noticeable.  By 20 June it looks like this:-

bottom orchidflowerspik close206 52

But look, the orchid at the top on the same day looks like this:-

top orchid flowerspike with20 hawkweed206 58

It has become the same paler colour that the other orchid has been the whole time!  So when the books say that the Common Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza fuschii is ‘somewhat variable in form' this is what they mean!!
I leave both flower spikes to go to seed each year, hoping that the orchid will self-seed into other parts of my grass hillside.  In fact I only remove the spent spikes in the spring when I see the spotted leaves emerging.   However, so far, I have only found these two orchids growing here.  But I don't despair as I have heard of a gardener who had always kept their large lawn near Keswick very short, but last year for the first time did not cut so short or start so early, and suddenly discovered a purple flower spike in the grass.  Great jubilation and delight and photographing ensued, and then another appeared.  And another.  In all they had over 40 Orchis mascula – Early Purple Orchids – “suddenly” appear in their lawn!  They had been there all those years biding their time and last year when the grass was not mowed to within an inch of its life in March and early April they appeared.  So it is possible you might also have orchids in your grass.  
So how did you get on?  Did you find lots of lovely wildflowers growing in your lawn when you left the grass to grow?  If you did, and you want to try and ensure you have more wildflowers next year, then trying to spread the seed of the wildflowers about is a good option.  Obviously as the flowers go over and seedheads ripen you can monitor them and collect the seed yourself – for example I showed you the Common Vetch (Vicia sativa) seeds that scattered from the black seed pods that I collect in June.  Here's a picture to remind you:-

common vetch seedpods in grass 57

You can leave the seedheads of plants to ripen and spread themselves by not cutting the grass where they are until the seedheads have ripened sown themselves.  As you know dandelions, and indeed Hawkweeds, have fluffy parasols on the end of their seeds and when ripe the wind blows the dandelion's clocks of seed and they sail away to land elsewhere to germinate.  If you want to harvest the seed of a particular wild flower you will need to monitor the plant until you think the seed is ripe (often it goes brown, or rattly in its seedhead) and then take a paper bag or envelope out and a pair of scissors and try and cut the flower spike in such a way that the seedhead lands into the bag/envelope so that the seeds fall in there.   Then you need to write on the bag/envelope what the seed is because you will forget otherwise, as one seed looks very much like another if you collect lots!   Here is a photo of me monitoring the seed of the Bladder Campion ( subsp. vulgaris) in August last year, which look ripe and brown and rattly for me to collect:-

bc seedhead and paper close 93

And here I've crushed the seedhead to show you the ripe seed:-

bc seedhead open close 36

By the end of July and early August I will have tried to get some of the tufted seeds of the Fox and Cubs Hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum) when the flowers ran to seed.  As you can imagine from my description last month I generally wuss out and leave the – Vipers Bugloss – seed well alone!  From July onwards I have been testing the Cowslip () seed heads weekly to see if the seed has ripened yet.  When I think it has – depending on the weather each year this can vary by as much as a month but eventually the seeds do go dark and rattle in their seedheads then my husband does his Poldark thing, and gets our ancient scythe out and gives the patches of long grass with the cowslips in a scythe, then rakes up the grass cuttings so that as I pick the grass up in bundles and shake it I HOPE any seed that has not already scattered falls out and lands back on the grass.  Then I put the long grass cuttings on the compost heap mixed with scrunched up newspaper.  A week or so later the grass can be mown with our normal mower as we expect the cowslip seed will have been washed in by rain and me walking over it a few times (pretending to be a cow as my husband puts it!) and settled back into the ground.  This technique of leaving the area with wildflowers in it to let the flowers go to seed and ripen before cutting the grass holds true for all wildflowers, particularly if you want to have a wildflower meadow.  It is generally recommended that an actual wildflower meadow isn't mown til sometime in August, and then again when you do the last mow of the season, and then left to grow.
If you want to actually develop an area of wildflower meadow rather than just leave a bit of lawn to grow a bit longer than usual, then you will also need to try and reduce the vigour of the grass because it is such a successful plant that it outcompetes the wild flowers.  There are a few options here – obviously not feeding it at all being one.  Not cutting it actually helps to make it less bushy at the base too, which helps the wildflowers to get established.  But a favourite suggestion among experts is to try and naturalise Yellow Rattle () in the grass.  Rather like the Common Broomrape (Orobanche minor), picture below, that I mentioned last month being a parasite of Clover, Yellow Rattle is a parasite on grass.  

common broomrape on clover in grass 92

Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) gets all its nutrients from the grass, which weakens the grass.  I have never been very successful with sowing seed of Yellow Rattle, which according to the RHS sets seeds about now, and these seeds need to be sown fresh – ie straight away – which is probably where I am going wrong with bought seed being no longer fresh.  I understand that you can buy plugs of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) on line, which you can plant into your grass where you want to try and stunt the grass growth.  This is not something I have tried yet, so if you have, please let us know in the comments and share your experience with it.  
So that brings me to the end of my series on letting the grass grow to see what wildflowers come up in your lawns.  I hope you found it interesting to see what grows naturally on a chalk hillside grassland.  Next month I shall return to a round up of what actual gardening I've been doing during lockdown.

Sheila May

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