Nature Notes: Orchid just like Black Adder...

Fly orchid.
Fly orchid.

Some say the fly orchid resembles Black Adder in his Elizabethan velvet trousers and lace shirt. A proper little dandy.

Others think it resembles a bluebottle fly. I have been on the trail of this exquisite little orchid for fort years and get quite a feeling of pleasure every year when I find one.

They are common in Sussex. Just look on the woodland track sides especially under beech trees and – well, you might easily pas by without seeing them. Though this picture by Chichester’s Brian Henham makes it look as big as snap dragon, the fly orchid really is just that – a fly. If it looks like a bluebottle it is a skinny one indeed.

Enough of insults. If ever you believed in fairies – as the Elizabethans did – here is a woodland Dryad. Even a Nyad since it loves the shady places.

Unlike the bee orchid, which is an agricultural coloniser like the poppy, needing recently turned soil, the fly orchid grows year after year in the same place.

Fifty have grown in just one acre of downland at Kingley Vale for at least forty years. They grow nowhere else on that nature reserve which covers half a square mile.

They grow on Bignor Hill at Inholmes Wood near Stoughton and in lots of old beech and oak woods along the South Downs ridge – 34 tetrads to be exact, contain the fly orchid.

It is attractive to small flies of many species which visit the pale blue and purple lip for a kind of nectar only they find tasty. Wasps and honeybees don’t go near it.

These small insects take the pollen away in the containers the flower provide specially for safe travel. As the insect visit another fly orchid with these pollinia stuck to its body, the next flower is fertilised.

I once found at the Kingley Vale site, two or three fly orchids which had become triplets. Each of the blooms on each separate green stalk had three blooms instead of the usual one. It only happened for one year, the plants returning to normal flowering the next year.

I have never seen any more nor heard from botanists that they have either. It may have been what they call fastigiation, which you see with thistles and foxgloves.

The stem somehow receives a hormone that causes replication on a crazy scale. I have seen a ragwort stem looking like a piece of green corrugated iron, and a marsh thistle stem nine inches wide like a sawn plank of wood.

Fly orchids were late this year, still blooming in late June due to the old winters.

But there are still several of our 26 species of wild orchid in Sussex still to come.

Richard Williamson