Friday, 10 July 2015

A red letter day

I've known for a while that one of the rarest plants in the country flowered just up the road from us, but I've never seen it and wasn't really sure how you ever could see it ... until now that is!

The red helleborine is an orchid that only grows at three sites in Britain and doesn't even flower every year. The site in the Chilterns is only a couple of miles away from us, on a permit only reserve managed by BBOWT. It has a single flower this year and I was very keen to try and see it. I emailed BBOWT to enquire about a permit and they very kindly offered to show me and my Mum the plant.

We met up at the side of a road and walked down a track with our guide, Chris. Then we headed off-track (as it were) up a slope into the woods, ducking under beech branches, dodging holes in the undergrowth, wading through nose high bracken, following a faint trail where others had trodden to get to the helleborine. There was no way we would have found it on our own.

Well hidden away, it's quite an adventure to get to the plant
Then a large high-fenced enclosure appeared in front of us and there it was, more pink than red, the extremely rare red helleborine. It's a beautiful helleborine, much more showy than the white helleborines that have flowers that barely open.

With the trek through the jungle of undergrowth and the high fence around it, it felt like we were in the presence of something very special indeed. A precious and delicate little plant that was beautiful and captivating.

There were six plants growing in the enclosure, but only one of them flowered this year. The last two years they've had no flowers at all, so we were lucky to see this one. They're insect pollinated, but research has shown that none of the resident bees and flies pick up the pollen, so can't be pollinating it. While we were there a black fly showed interest in the flowers, but we were too far away to get a decent photo of it.

We turned around and saw a marsh tit and a coal tit in a nearby bush. Then a lovely silver-washed fritillary sat sunning itself on some brambles at the bottom of the slope.

What an amazing place, fabulous plant and brilliant adventure! Thank you BBOWT and Chris for the guided tour. We both feel very lucky to have seen it and are extremely grateful.

On the way home we drove past Whiteleaf, so popped in to see if there was any sign of the violet hellebrines yet. Mum had seen them there in the past near the car park, so we had a quick look and found four in bud. We'll have to keep an eye on them... at least they're slightly easier to get to than the red helleborine!

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