An orchid summer - discovering some of nature's rarest plants on our doorstep

Casper Lee-Motzkau with his discovery of a lizard orchid.

Casper Lee-Motzkau with his discovery of a lizard orchid. - Credit: Nicholas Lee

Some things in nature have the power to make enthusiasts or dare I say ‘geeks’, of us all. Ordinarily, the extremes of expressed passion, the odd behaviours, and the re-telling of obscure discoveries are the reserve of the few: hobbyists and specialists in their field. 

Such characters have often been portrayed in ways that emphasise their obsessions – khaki clothing, thick glasses and, to all intents and purposes, looking like middle-aged Boy Scouts, embellished with binoculars or a magnifying glass to highlight their particular focus. 

Of course, these are all huge generalisations and mostly out-dated caricatures, but the truth remains that real enthusiasts are fringe-people, delving into the detail and experience of nature that most others are either ignorant of or ignore. 

I am one of those ‘geeks’ when it comes to birds and, more and more, other flora and fauna too. I’m sure that at times I conform to the caricatures, however, just occasionally, my enthusiasm is shared by all, regardless of their usual everyday nonchalance. 

Certain species or natural phenomena have the power to captivate regardless of former devotions. Sunsets and sunrises of course, but also barn owls, kingfishers and otters.

Something about their inherent beauty, movement or appearance has the potency to transform even the dullest critic into an avid enthusiast, willing to embrace, momentarily, a childlike excitement and abandon in place of usual social norms. 

This past month I have encountered one of these ‘powerful draws’ of nature – this time in the plant kingdom.

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Whatever the weather has done this spring it seems to have benefitted those most beautiful of plants: the orchids. Always rare and much sought after by ‘orchid-hunters’ orchids have, throughout history, drawn admirers from all walks of life. 

Part of their intrigue comes simply from their rarity but also because they are genuinely unusual flowers, mimicking the shape of bees, insects, monkeys and even man in their attempts to attract pollinators.

At Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits on the edge of St Albans and not far from Hatfield I discovered my first ever bee orchids this year and have had the chance to marvel close-up at their intricacy. 

I hesitated to share the news but thankfully bee orchids are one of the more widespread orchids and Tyttenhanger can boast more than 60 plants this year.

Though tiny plants they have drawn many visitors who may be seen staring intently at grassy banks, crouching down and pointing or even lying down for the perfect bee orchid photograph! 

Aside from their beauty and rarity, orchids add to their aura of excitement by popping up in the most unexpected of places – a lawn that has been left uncut, a roadside verge, including, this year, the far from salubrious setting of Baldock Service Station! 

One young naturalist hit ‘orchid gold’ just recently as he walked an area of rough ground in St Albans.

Eight year old Casper Lee-Motzkau, who is familiar with many of the plants in his local area, noticed an unusual orchid growing and contacted Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust to share his discovery.

The single plant turned out to be the extremely rare lizard orchid, so named for its petals’ resemblance to the long, thin body-shape of lizards. 

Ian Denholm, the county botanical recorder for Herts and national orchid referee for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, said: “The lizard orchid is one of our most spectacular native orchids and is a very significant find in Herts.

"There are long-standing colonies in Kent, Sussex, Cambridgeshire and Somerset. Elsewhere in the UK it is rare and greatly sought after by orchid enthusiasts. One turned up in 2020 in a private wildflower lawn at Braughing in Herts. Before that there is just a single Herts record from the 1930s.” 

Casper must be congratulated for his sharp eyes, but his find’s location must also remain top secret!

A study published in 1999 revealed that the main contributor to the lizard orchid’s rarity was down to plant collecting with plants being dug up for private collections or simply to be transplanted in private gardens.

Orchids are one of the wonders of nature with the power to pull a crowd so if you come across them, please take only a photograph and think twice before sharing their location!