Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Burren orchids in profusion

In mid June Marty and I made an overnight trip to the Burren in north Co Clare. We usually do so in May to see the spring gentians, but this time my eyes were on another prize – the orchids for which the limestone pavements are renowned. I was inspired by a birthday present from my brother Tom, a book called ‘Orchid Summer’ by Jon Dunn, in which he records a mad dash around Britain and Ireland to find and photographic every single orchid species and variety known to occur in the two islands. The book is really a road-trip diary, but beautifully written and filled with anecdote, and I recommend it to amateur botanists like myself.

Slieve Carran Nature Reserve
My search began at Slieve Carran Nature Reserve in the Burren National Park, where I was once shown shrivelled seed heads said to be of the Dense-Flowered orchid (Neotinea maculata). It is a Burren speciality I have never found, with a remarkable distribution – it is widespread around the Mediterranean, but in northern Europe does not occur except in the west of Ireland and the Isle of Man!

I scoured the limestone pavement on the path that leads to St Colman MacDuagh’s holy well and cave, but I failed yet again to find it, no doubt because it was already over. But I did find several other orchid species. The Heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata ssp ericetorum) was everywhere, alongside the bloody cranesbill, mountain avens, and birdsfoot trefoil which make the Burren as gay as any rock garden. There were rather fewer Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii ssp fuchsii) and I found a single helleborine about to flower, most likely Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine), which is common in the hanging hazel wood above St Colman’s well. The Early purple orchids (Orchis mascula) were over, but their drying seed-heads were easy to spot, and I took a poor photo of one still showing some dying purple petals. But my biggest excitement was to find single specimens of Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and Lesser butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia).

Heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata ssp ericetorum)
Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii ssp fuchsii)

Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) in bud, with bloody cranesbill

Seed-head of early purple orchid (Orchis mascula), with a few desiccated purple petals
Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera)

Lesser butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia)
Meanwhile, flying all around were day-flying burnet moths, a local subspecies of the Transparent Burnet (Zygaena purpuralis ssp sabulosa), another Burren speciality. I snapped this mating pair resting on a seed-head of Mountain avens.

A mating pair of the Burren Transparent Burnet (Zygaena purpuralis ssp sabulosa),
resting on a seed-head of Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala)

We continued our pilgrimage walk to St Colman MacDuagh’s Holy Well. I felt proud of Marty, who completed the walk despite her artificial knees and hip – a long walk over rough ground there and back. By then it was getting late, so we headed for Ballinalacken Castle Hotel for the night, where we were given a room with a view over to the Arran Islands as we requested. Sadly the restaurant was closed that evening, but we did not starve as we ate well in Doolin.

Pol Sallach
The next morning we went to Pol Sallach, on the shore off the coast road close to Ballinalacken, for some more botanising. This is a favourite place, where once Marty found Pyramidal Bugle – another Burren rarity. We didn’t find it this time – too late, I’m sure – but we did find two more species of orchids: Western marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza occidentalis), and a single Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera).

Western marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza occidentalis)
Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)
At last I found a couple of late spring gentians in bloom. And I harvested a good bagful of rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) from the rocky beach, a delicious wild vegetable - I took a few roots to try to grow at home.

Spring gentian (Gentiana verna)
Bishop's Quarter
From Pol Sallach we drove through Lisdoonvarna to Ballyvaughan, and stopped for a walk on Bishop’s Quarter beach, where I used to take my children to swim and swam myself as a child. On the sand-spit there, by the deserted lifeguard station I found yet another orchid, Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) in both a typical and a flesh-pink form.

Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis),
with sea holly in the background

... and a flesh pink form of Pyramidal orchid
We lunched well at Linnane’s of Newquay, where Marty eat lobster and I had lemon sole. Then we headed for home by way of Carron and Glencolumkill. Stopping at the view point, while Marty dozed in the car, I walked up the green road in the townland of Fahy North that leads to the winterage, looking for the small and elusive Frog orchid, but without any luck.

Nine different species
Still, I had found 9 different species of orchid over two days, and enjoyed two lovely days in the Burren, one of my favourite places - I felt very specially blessed.

The wonder of orchids
There is something very special and wonderful about the vast family of orchid species, of which there are over 25,000 worldwide. Their common ancestor lived over 100 million years ago, and they have evolved alongside both insects and fungi.
  • The amazing diversity of their flower forms have arisen to take advantage of insects as pollinators. Many orchid species attract particular insect species with scents mimicking the insect’s sex pheromones. Others provide nectar and have spots and blotches which guide insects to it. Orchid flowers have intricate mechanisms to stick a bundle of male pollen on a visiting insect just where it will be safely delivered to the female part of the next flower the insect visits. 
  • The seed of orchids is minute, like dust, which can blow long distances on the wind, but without food reserves the seed needs to link up immediately with a mycorrhizal fungal partner. This feeds the growing orchid underground, sometimes for many years, before it is big enough to put up leaves, feed itself and produce a flower spike to reproduce. After flowering many orchids revert again to life underground until conditions are right and they are sufficiently strong to bloom again - this is why they can be so elusive, appearing and disappearing over many years. Some have even given up on the bother of producing leaves with chlorophyll to feed themselves, living entirely off their fungal partner, and only putting up a flower spike to reproduce. As far as I know no one has discovered what is in it for the fungus in this case, but I feel there must be a benefit.

God has created an evolving world in which different species are meant to live in community with other species, a reflection of the divine community we see at work in the Trinity, I believe. This is as true of our species, the human species, as it is of orchids. In this Anthropocene age, a time of mass extinction caused by human action, we ignore this at our peril.

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