Friday, 03 July 2020

Striking orchids lure me to their secret location like a siren’s call

THE time has come to pay another visit to one of my beloved areas of local Chiltern woodland.

It is home to one of my favourite flowering plants, the early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) and, fingers crossed, the plants should be in flower now. They are one of the first of our native wild orchids to bloom.

On an inspection of the site last spring I must have counted at least 80 spikes of the variably coloured plants, some with heavily purple-spotted leaves, others with just a hint of maculation. The flowers range from a rich purple to an almost watery pink. They also stink like a tomcat.

This morning the temperature and weather conditions seem perfect. I consult Rosemary. She is keen to take some exercise and I want to share the anticipated show with her so we lace up our boots and take off early along some leafy country lanes.

Although I mentioned these flowers in this column last month, I won’t describe the exact location of these rarities as I fear that some individual may be tempted to dig up the orchids and take them home as a prize for the garden. It will never work, by the way. I also imagine that very few people would ever find them as their home is way off the beaten track and surrounded by thick cover.

We are not disappointed. After a simple stroll through predominantly beech woodland we slip into the setting where I know the plants grow.

I stop, a little puzzled, and am kindly advised by my significant other that there is a rather interesting plant just 2ft away. She is correct, of course, and a splendid specimen it is too — tall, stout and richly deep in hue.

There are more than 100 of them in the main colony and we find a splinter group some 30ft away. Marvellous. The new mini-colony numbers about 20 so this is a very good year.

I have a rather strange association with wild plants. Some seem to find me rather than the other way around. I seem to receive the occasional siren call, which I invariably follow and, hey presto, a rarity presents itself.

Rosemary takes some detailed photographs of the orchids and we move on further into the forest.

I rediscover a carpet of ramsons or wild garlic (Allium ursinum) with their clusters of white bell-shaped flowers. Their scent can be overwhelming. The leaves are great in a salad.

Just a few yards away is a parade of extraordinarily large, beautiful and prehistoric-looking ferns that have 4ft long majestic fronds and, today, emerging, light-green “fiddleheads”.

This plant is a soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum), a rarity reported from only 20 tetrads in the whole of Oxfordshire. These are stunning.

We take a path that skirts some woodland ponds. The ground is slippery after rain but then the water table is high here.

A few enormous hybrid poplar trees with deeply fissured bark rise high above and an old horse chestnut stands by the water’s edge.

I have not visited this part of the woodland for a long while and seek out a path that I once walked. I can’t be sure where it is and have to consult my compass. We find it, quite overgrown, but still here. Horses have passed through. To either side other ferns grow in profusion, the male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) and the broad buckler (Dryopteris dilitata), our two most common.

The woodland is primarily dominated by Douglas fir but then opens up spectacularly under mixed deciduous trees.

As we pass through a grove of cherries, Rosemary says that she has never seen so many grass species growing under tree cover but here they are, interspersed with woodruff (Galium odoratum), greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) and yellow pimpernel (Lysimachia nemorum).

Common whitethroats (Sylvia communis) have just arrived and are belting out their metallic, strident and rattling but enchanting song.

We leave the plants and woodland behind and head into open country.

We pass a hedgerow planted only a few years back but now appearing to have existed for many more. So well arranged, two shrubs deep in a zig-zag fashion.

With so many of these vital wildlife corridors having been grubbed up in recent times, it is most encouraging to find this form of rural renewal.

The importance of these natural thoroughfares cannot be understated. Insects abound, birds find ideal nesting sites and cover is provided for small mammals, such as wood mice, bank and field voles and common and pygmy shrews. These diminutive animals still have to beware the small but lethal “highwaymen” of the countryside, weasels and stoats.

The weasel (Mustela nivalis), our smallest carnivore, is capable of slaying a rabbit. They may be ruthless little hunters but they are targets themselves. Foxes and birds of prey will snaffle them up given the opportunity.

The stoat (Mustela erminea) is twice the size of its cousin the weasel and a formidable hunter. Stoats are capable of tracking a rabbit for a great distance, being gifted with extraordinary olfactory ability.

On occasion, a stoat will stand erect on its hind legs and scan the area with intensity. They will fell a rabbit that may exceed their size fourfold.

But back to our walk. We pass an old ruin and then go downhill, passing another woodland glade to our left and step through a kissing gate that skirts a classic meadow.

If followed southwards, our path eventually leads up and down to the River Thames over the undulating landscape.

After passing through another striking copse, we find ourselves bathed in sunlight.

A lone oak tree lies at the bottom of this small but beautifully sculpted valley. With its new light green foliage it stands like a beacon and is popular today with four heifers that congregate underneath its protective shadow, tails swinging.

We take a turn and ascend a short but steep incline.

A wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) is in full bloom by a tidy gate. The flower heads are creamy white and quite delectable. It is one of my favourite small native trees.

Standing back at the gate and reviewing the path that we have taken, it is possible to take in the sheer loveliness of the land. Contours, verdance, promise and welcome.

We wander homewards looking forward to lunch. We see three people ahead looking nervous as a horse is blocking the exit into a bridleway from open pasture. We move past them at a safe distance and head for the gate straight towards the horse. I pass him an apple and he lets us through.

It is such a glorious warm day. On our way we cross a particularly fragrant field. On a gentle slope we stretch out and lie on our backs on the spring-scented and buttercup-filled sward.

As I gaze above at the azure sky. a song by Gene Clark, Lady of the North, resonates in my brain. It’s so apposite.

Flying high above, the clouds
We lay in the grassy meadow
The earth was like a pillow
For our dreams

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