Christ’s blood covers the Lords-and-Ladies

Being only mid-April it is quite early for a number of wildflower species to be blooming, in particular Orchids. Therefore I was very pleased when I spotted quite a number of individual orchid plants, or ‘spikes’, on Good Friday.

The colour of the flowers of these orchids were purple, and they were flowering quite early in the orchid season. That meant that they were Early Purple Orchids! I was pleased that I managed to see these orchids as although they are not a particularly rare or localised species, they are a species I have never seen before.

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Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) whole spike

 

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Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) flower detail

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Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) whole plant

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Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) leaf detail

As you can see from the last photo above, the leaves of this species are covered in dark black markings. Early Purple Orchids share this characteristic with several other orchid species such as the Common Spotted Orchid and the Heath Spotted Orchid. And, as there so often is, there is folklore that surrounds the spots that are present on the Early Purple Orchid. It has been believed that this flower grew below the Cross on which Christ was crucified, and the leaf spots are the drops of Christ’s blood.

And not only orchids have these dark spots on their leaves. We came across these leaves on the same walk:

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These are the leaves of Lords-and-Ladies, Arum maculatum. When the scientific name is translated into English it becomes ‘Spotted Lily’, after the spots on the leaves. Along with Lords-and-Ladies there is a huge range of other vernacular names including Cuckoo Pint, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Cows-and-bulls and Naked Boys. The names that are gender-related such as Lords-and-Ladies and Cows-and-bulls refer to how the flowers of this species apparently look like the process of sexual reproduction:

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The flower is very clever in attracting insects for pollination. The spadix, the dark inflorescence rising vertically from the flower, has an odour resembling that of dung which is particularly attractive to a number of fly species. The flower can also produce a temperature significantly warmer, up to 15 degrees or so, than the surrounding air, which also helps to bring in pollinators. Below the spadix there is a ring of robust hairs, which temporarily keep the flies inside. The flies are able to escape but usually only when they have come into contact with the male flowers inside the spathe (the green hood surrounding the spadix) and have therefore been covered in pollen. Once the fly has escaped then it will fly to another Lords-and-ladies flower, again attracted by the faecal scent. Some of the pollen on the fly will find itself inside the female flowers – which are situated below the male flowers – allowing fertilisation to take place.

Both Early Purple Orchids and Lords-and-ladies are common plants in the UK at this time of year, definitely species to look out for. Early Purple Orchids are easy to spot due to their tall and bright flowers, particularly in their favoured habitat of woodland and woodland edge. Lords-and-ladies are less easy to spot due to the green colour of their leaves, however keep an eye out for them and you should be able to find some of the distinctive flowers.

 

 

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Worms from the depths…

Last weekend, on the way back from a great stay at Portland Bird Observatory, I met Tony Davis and Josie Hewitt in a small car park in the New Forest. Our aim was to find as many rare plants as possible and we did well, finding really uncommon species such as Yellow Centaury, Pillwort and the delightfully named Duck-potato. Below are a few photos of the plants we managed to record.

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Autumn Lady’s-tresses

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Pillwort, this is actually a fern and reproduces using spores!

Despite seeing over 30 new species for my pan-species list that day my highlight was actually an annelid worm! I don’t often look at annelid worms (which are mostly earthworms) as they are not the most exciting creatures in my opinion and I find them very tricky to identify. However the species I added was far from boring!

To find this species, we stood in a pond.

We didn’t have to do anything else, just stand in the pond and wiggle our feet. It wasn’t long before I spotted a long dark creature swimming towards me like an eel on its side. It twisted through the water and came right up to my boot before swimming off. Then Josie spotted another at my heel. There were several of them, twisting through the water weeds with elegant wavelike movements.

This part of the New Forest is excellent for this species of annelid worm, the Medicinal Leech. This is due to the number of ponies providing the leeches with lots of food! Many leeches are terrestrial, however some, like this species, prefer to inhabit freshwater and are adept at swimming. The Medicinal Leech is often mistaken for the Horse Leech, which the leeches in this pond were at first thought to be. Although they appear very similar in appearance, they have very different prey preferences. Despite the name, Horse Leeches can’t penetrate the tough skin on mammals and therefore cannot feed upon their blood. Instead they choose to eat much smaller prey, such as snails and earthworms, both in the water and out. Medicinal Leeches are able to bite tough skin and their main food sources are cattle and horses. However, they also feed on frogs and sometimes even humans!

Unfortunately, these fascinating invertebrates are one of the few I know to have an IUCN designation worse than Least Concern. Most are Not Evaluated or Data Deficient and the species with enough research to provide details on the fluctuations and size of populations are often not too rare. They are classified as Near Threatened despite the population trend – among other things – being unknown. Their main threats are local collection for medicinal use; loss of habitat; and decline in one of their main prey items, frogs.

Below are a few photos I was able to take of the leeches that swam towards us:

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Underground Birds’ Nests!

This afternoon I was very lucky to be able to fit in a short trip to an undisclosed site in Ashdown Forest to see a very rare plant: the Bird’s-nest Orchid. I have been asked to keep the precise location a secret as there are only two individual plants flowering at the moment and I believe there might be some collectors keen to get their hands on them. Luckily Ashdown Forest is a huge place and these orchids are incredibly easy to miss.

I first learnt about these orchids being present at Ashdown Forest – one of the largest areas of woodland and more importantly open heathland in the South East – on the Sussex Botanical Recording Society website. There is a new ‘Latest Sightings’ feature on the website and I have been lucky enough to post a ‘Latest Sighting’ on there already, on the Krauss’s Clubmoss. You can read the orchid latest sighting here and my clubmoss latest sighting here.

The beech woodland where the plant was growing was very nice except there was very little diversity of ground flora. I think this may be due to the very large population of deer, particularly the Fallow Deer, which have over-grazed the area. However, there were some nice patches of late-flowering Bluebells as well as Ground Ivy, Germander Speedwell and not-yet-flowering Wood-Sorrel. In fact I saw a couple of female Fallow Deer while we were there, although they were very shy and were gone before I could see more than their heads with their sensitive ears standing up rigidly, on high alert. Deer were hunted in Ashdown Forest in the past so they must have learnt to be very wary of humans even now when deer-hunting has been discontinued.

There were some very large and beautiful Beech trees in the woodland that seemed to support a plethora of life. In one tiny patch of about 3 square centimetres there were no less than 5 adult Athous haemorrhoidalis, a common beetle whose larvae feed on tree roots. I also watched my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year flycatching from the mighty limbs of a particularly grand Beech tree.

We carried on down the road, checking every beech clump on the left side of the road to see if we could spot the easily-missed orchids. Surely we were supposed to be looking on the left side of the road? My dad agreed and we continued, starting to lose hope. We soon reached a point which was surely much farther than the directions had intended. Where were they? We must have missed them. We gloomily trod back up to the car, disappointed that we hadn’t seen these special plants. My eyes drifted over to the side of the road we hadn’t been looking at, where I stopped suddenly. I stood staring at two beige plants with disbelief. We had found the two Bird’s-nest Orchids! They were looking exactly as they had in the photo on the latest sightings page on the SBRS website which was taken 8 days before. Here are some photos and a very short mini-documentary:

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