Wednesday 16 August 2023

Autumn Ladies Tresses 15th August 2023

The native orchids of Britain are a new fascination for me.My obsessive nature temporarily transferred from twitching birds to seeking out the different species of orchid that still manage to grace our increasingly degraded natural landscape. Another huge bonus is they remain where they are unlike birds which all too often fly off!

A colleague invited me to join him on a trip to not far away Greenham Common in Berkshire to seek out the latest of our native orchids to flower - Autumn Ladies Tresses. Known as such because the arrangement of the flowers on the stem resemble the curly locks of a woman's hair.

I have only ever seen them once before and that was many, many years ago at Beachy Head in East Sussex  so my memory of what they looked like was hazy due to  the passing of so much intervening time I recalled they were small and delicate with white flowers and at the time I felt it was a great privilege to see them but that was the sum of it.

Greenham Common was bathed in warm sunshine below blue skies as we walked a short distance from the car park in the general direction of an open area of short heathland grass which was studded with the yellow starlike flowers of Dwarf Hawkbit and Horseshoe Vetch, a delight to the eye to be sure but where were the tresses?

We split up and it was not long before my colleague Peter called me over and walking to join him there were the Autumn Ladies Tresses at our feet. Tiny, no more than a few centimetres high they hardly stood out even amongst the short grass. I crouched down to look closer and the intrinsic delicate  beauty of these orchids became apparent. The white and green flowers twisted upwards, for all the world like a fairy spiral staircase, around a pale greyish green stem. the lower flowers in full bloom, the uppers clenched tight, awaiting their time to open.The twisted shape was not unattractive, looking like some intricate piece of jewellery one would pin to clothing. The spiral impression is the origin of its Latin name Spiranthes spiralis

Once my eyes became familiar with the appearance of the tresses,  I commenced to find more and more. I had got my eye in. They were here in profusion, coming into the early stages of flowering.So small were they, one had to tread so very carefully to avoid crushing these delicate spires of white.

In situations like this I find myself entering into a parallel world where my general surroundings fade to inconsequence as I focus mind and body solely on the flower, which seems to draw me into its influence and its own private world, an amalgam of not only its living presence but its folklore and life history. Possibly this comes about due to viewing the flower through the constrictions of the camera's viewfinder, the sole image visible being the flower. Whatever the explanation it is a far from unpleasant sensation and for all the time I was photographing these floral gems nothing else intruded.

We found our own spires and called to each other to come and look at our latest discovery, a benign competition to try and find the finest and tallest to delight each other but really there were so many that in the end we just meandered individually across the sward seeking out yet another discrete congregation of tresses in the grass.

Wherever we went we regularly encountered populated areas full of them and then areas that were bereft and it became apparent there must be thousands upon thousands randomly scattered in colonies large and small all over the common. As on my last visit to see Dartford Warblers I found myself contrasting these delicate flowers and their now pleasant surroundings to the former use of this land as a no go base for nuclear bombs and planes..I wonder if the tresses were here then, innocently growing un- noticed by the side of the runway and if so rejoice they have outlasted the military planes that thundered past them. I like to think so. 

They are perennial, flowering from mid Augsut to the end of September.. Growing no more than 10-15cms high they prefer areas of short grass such as that nibbled by rabbits and sheep, meadows, heaths and even the edges of pine woodland. In Britain they are absent from Scotland but widely distributed throughout southern England, reaching as far north as Lancashire and are also found in coastal Wales.Further afield they are distributed throughout Europe,North Africa and Asia.

Alhtough still plentiful in Britain it has decreased markedly in the last 80 years as a result of the loss of suitable habitat brought about by a change to a more intensive agriculuture..Due to  this it is now classed by CITES (Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species) as Near Threatened.  

If its preferred habitat is left unmown it can appear in thousands and its preference for very short grass means it can sometimes appear on garden lawns and in boom years can be found in astonishing numbers such  as over 3000 on one lawn in East Sussex and a front lawn in West Sussex that had 672 spikes in an area approx 230 yards square.

For a couple of hours with the sun on our backs we enjoyed these delightful unprepossesing orchids still managing to grow and thrive here in abundance under the protection of BBOWT.(Berks,,Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust).

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