Friday, 21 January 2022

From nearly standing on a snake to seeing a rare gem at the roadside

From nearly standing on a snake to seeing a rare gem at the roadside

I HAVE boarded the no 25 bus in Prospect Street, Caversham, with my mother Maggie.

We’re heading north through Emmer Green and Sonning Common towards the Unicorn pub at Peppard Hill, the terminus.

It is a pleasant ride, the landscape a fresh green and the air sweet and wholesome as it blows through the open windows.

We alight and once inside the pub I install mum with a copy of the Henley Standard, a national daily, plenty of crosswords and a ginger ale. She is happy and I’m off for a walk. We’ll have some lunch upon my return.

It has been nearly a year since I set foot on Kingwood Common but it is as lovely as ever.

The grass has grown high. Grasshoppers chirrup, meadow brown butterflies skip along the glades, heath bedstraw is in flower, birds sing and I feel at home.

I have a sudden desire to throw myself backwards into the fragrant sward and stare skywards but I resist the temptation.

I am glad that I did as suddenly something moves in a sunny spot among the grass and heather. It is a venomous adder and I’ve nearly trodden on it.

These creatures really do blend in with the surrounding vegetation with their zig-zag backs. Before I can take a photograph it has gone. The adder (Vipera berus berus) is a stocky, sun-loving snake about 2ft long and quite different in appearance from our other two native species.

The grass snake (Natrix natrix), with its giveaway yellow patches to the rear of its eyes, is a competent swimmer and can often be seen slipping gracefully around our waterways. The female of the species can reach 4ft.

The smooth snake (Coronella austriaca austriaca) exists mainly in the South. I have yet to see one but maybe I’ll be lucky sometime. I have always found snakes to be curious creatures with their eyes open permanently.

I have always liked it here at Kingwood Common and there are plenty of reasons why. Stepping away from Colmore Lane any intrusion from the urban world is instantly left behind.

All I can hear besides the birds is the gentle sound of leaves rustling in a slight breeze.

Back at the pub mum and I have a hearty lunch and watch out for the bus to take us home.

Later in the day, I receive a call from my friend Dave Kenny who tells me that a lizard orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum) in flower has been reported on a grass verge by a busy road in Reading by Dr Stephanie Bird, of Reading University. Madness, I think, I’ll have to see it to believe it.

Well, it’s true. After negotiating one of Reading’s busy roads, we park up and there is the plant — an extraordinary specimen at least 2ft tall.

I have seen many photos and drawings of a lizard orchid but this is my first sighting in person.

At first glance you could easily miss it as, like the adder, it seems to blend in with its surroundings. It looks like an everyday, unassuming plant but a closer inspection reveals there are about 90 individual flowers on the solitary spike.

The flowers are extremely unusual. The labellum (or lip) is very long, twisted and wrinkled while above is a compact cowl formed of much smaller sepals and petals.

I have read that the flowers are redolent of billy goats but I cannot smell anything apart from the fumes from the passing traffic.

Dave has come equipped with some tools to modify and make safe the important wire guard and posts around the plant.

We are joined by Dr Michael Keith-Lucas, of Reading University, who has come to “pay homage”. He wonders whether a tiny seed that gave rise to this specimen blew here on the back of a Saharan wind.

He says there are records of several “exotics”, such as the tongue orchid (Serapias lingua) and either the mirror orchid (Ophrys speculum) or Bertoloni’s bee orchid (Ophrys bertolonii) having appeared in other parts of the South.

The lizard orchid is well known in east Kent and Suffolk and is also well documented as a sporadic plant that pops up here and there across the South-East.

It has been recorded as “near Stoke Row” in 1948 and at Berin’s Hill, near Ipsden, in 1970, according to my copy of the Flora of Oxfordshire (Killick, Perry & Woodell 1998). Alas, I have no reference for any previous records for Berkshire.

I call my botanist friend Camilla Lambrick in Oxford and she informs me that another lizard is doing well somewhere near Kidlington and another was present at Wallingford but has since vanished. We are talking rare once again.

Considering this strange plant in its incongruous site, I wonder how many others are present but unseen on other roadside and motorway verges. Maybe we’ll never know but thanks to one alert person I’ve seen a gem.

Vincent Ruane

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