On a Chalk Hillside September 2022

Published: September 6, 2022

Added in Sheila May's Blog

Variations in my self sown Common Spotted Orchids

You may recall when I wrote a series of articles regarding letting the grass grow, and seeing what comes up in it and I told you about my great delight in finding Common Spotted Orchids () in parts of my Chalk Hillside grassland.  At that time I told you I had originally found one plant towards the bottom of the slope, near the vegetable garden and hedge I have been recently telling you about, and a few years later was delighted to discover another plant higher up the slope.  These two plants came into flower about a fortnight apart, and one started much lighter in flower colour than the other, and the two eventually aged to the same colour, but could have different shaped flower spikes.

In 2020 I found that the plant lower down the slope had “spread” and there were two other rosettes of spotty leaves coming up about 15 cm from the original plant, each a separate plant from each other, but only about 5cm apart.  They were too small to make much of a flower spike though.  But the FOLLOWING year, I crawled all over the patch of Mouse ear hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum) and found many rosettes of spotty leaves.  Some very small rosettes, some more chunky.  However, much like my inattention with the hardy geranium variation, whilst I clocked that the flower spikes of these self-seeded Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) ranged in shape from small triangles to taller longer spikes, as well as varying in starting colour from paler to much darker before all aging to pale pink, I put that down to their age (ie small triangle shaped flower spikes must be young plants) I didn't really think too much of it, nor look at their leaves to see if there was variation there too.  It was only THIS year when I discovered that the plant in the upper part of the slope had self-seeded itself around a little, that I realised that there was actually significant variation in the leaves too.

Here's the original Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) plant as a rosette of leaves on 19 April 2020:-

orchidoriginalplant 3

Here's a small self-seeded plant near this one the following year on 18 April 2021 – as you can see, fewer paler spots on the leaves:-

babynextyrfewspots 94

However, even more variation was visible in the self-seeders of the orchid from higher up the slope, which made me re-examine those leaves showing in the more extensive colony lower down the slope.  Here are a selection of rosettes of leaves taken on 6.5.22:-

bigspots 29
neworchidpalerlotsofspots 50
neworchidpalespacestrappyleaf 17
neworchidspotty 86
neworchidwashedoutspots 90

(This one above looks like the leaves have been put in the washing machine too often and the spots have faded!)

neworchidwidespacedspots 24
strappylightspots 74

These last two also show some of the difference in leaf shape – from a broader shorter looking leaf, to a narrower more strappy looking leaf.  However, I am sure these are all babies from seed of an original single Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) plant.  Whilst a helpful day-flying moth might have carried pollen from the orchid lower down the slope to the one higher up, there are only these orchids that reach flowering on our chalk hillside as they are “safe” in the Mouse ear hawkweed from the mower's reach when they are forming their spotty rosettes, and IF I find them before our first mowing session of the year, I cordon them off, (or as my brother-in-law puts it CSI: Orchids).  To show you how unsafe any plant is elsewhere from the demon mower I found an orchid under a plum tree in the orchard this year whilst we were giving it its first mow of the year in mid-June.  In flower.  I pointed it out to himself who informed me he was perfectly capable of avoiding it thank you.  I took the grass clippings to the compost bin, and when I returned for the next barrowful – no orchid.  He had manically mowed all over it, even though I had just pointed it out.  Leaves gone as well as the flower spike……Oh dear (not exactly what I said at the time!)

I know that we are supposed to be able to confuse Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and the Heath Spotted Orchid (), but supposing you can overlook the fact the Heath Spotted Orchid prefers damper, acidic grassland rather than my fairly arid chalk grassland; and given the variation of leaves shown above which range from the broader with wider blotches particularly characteristic of the Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) to the strappier and less spotty as in the Heath Spotted Orchid; however the closeups of the flowers shown below, whilst showing other variations do all have the more deeply lobed lip of the Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii).

Moving on then to a few flower variation photos – here are two shots from 6 June this year showing the short dark spikes of the top of the slope patch of orchids (with the not very spotty leaves), versus the mainly longer spikes of paler flowers from lower down on the slope with the strappy leaves. The deeper purple flowers have few markings on the petals and are more fully open along the flower spike on 6 June than the ones lower down the slope on the same day:-

topshortdarkflower 13
p1 82

This group were particularly pale on that day:-

very pale clump 45

These close ups on the same day of three separate flower spikes just beginning to open show you not just the colour variation, but the variation in markings on the petals too:-

pinkwhite 86
pinkmarkings 50
whitemarkings 67

By 15 June the Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) spikes at the bottom of the slope were nearly as open as the ones up the slope had been on the 6th, and were still as varied in shape and colour as this:-

p2 58

As you are probably aware, Orchid seeds are even more dust-like than foxgloves, and I always thought that not just wind dispersal was needed, but also the red ants carried them below ground into their nests which are all over our hillside.  Whether that is true, or apocryphal I have discovered that in order to germinate in the wild the orchid seeds need to be in association with specific mycorrhzal fungi.  As you can see from my photos, it would appear that the thin chalk soil here DOES have the right sort of fungi in it.  If I could just stop himself mowing them to oblivion I might have orchids in other parts of the meadow grass. (Commercially people germinate them on agar in a complicated manner that is not possible for me to replicate.)

Moving on next month to talk about variation in self-seeded aquilegia.

Sheila May

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