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The charm of our elegant orchids

Outdoor Living

WILD WONDERS The Common spotted orchid and O’Kelly’s spotted orchid. Pics: John Shelley

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

We were never the sort to cry out for rain, but this year a break in the drought was more than welcome. A few damper days served to freshen everything up and bring the countryside to life, enabling an enormous amount of insects to hatch and providing a much-needed boost to wildflower meadows.
Until the middle of June I had thought this years wild orchids would come to nothing. Even after those thundery showers they put out just a few feeble leaves. Now, though, they have appeared in such profusion that, while far short of their best years, there are enough to fill those few free hours that come our way.
Common-spotted orchids are by far the most numerous local species. Their given name seems somewhat undignified – common and spotted – yet these are among the prettiest of any Irish wildflower and easily able to rival most garden flowers. Yes, they are still relatively common; in some years they are abundant. It is the leaves that are spotted, being liberally flecked with purple, and especially so the lower ones that grow around the base of the flowering stem.
Accurate identification of various orchid species is difficult. Take the fragrant orchid as an example. Only a handful of years ago there was only one type of fragrant orchid in the country, which was known to Botanists as Gymnadenia conopsia. All lesser botanists were happy at the name and only too pleased to find a rare colony of these richly scented, pink and purple flowers as they explored various territories.
Then came the professionals. Armed with microscopic vision, with DNA testing and with their scientific bent, they began to notice small but consistent differences between fragrant orchids in one place and those in another, with resulting confusion for the layman. We now have the common fragrant orchid, the dense-flowered fragrant (which apparently has more flowers more tightly packed than its cousins do) and the heath fragrant orchid. I can’t really tell the difference. To make things even more difficult the three species readily hybridise.
They all raise beautiful colour from wild ground and each has an equally delightful fragrance – of clove carnation, says my 75-year-old handbook, and I find it hard to offer a better description. Years ago we found a miniature forest of these on Lough Carra’s Twin Islands. Though they still grow there, that must have been an exceptional year for them.
But O’Kelly’s spotted orchid: the Wildflowers of Ireland website calls this ‘one of the Burren’s greatest treasures’. O’Kelly himself referred to it as a ‘gem of the first water’. What more can be said?
It is white, in the full sense of whiteness. It is pure, unblemished, and lightly perfumed. At present this remains, scientifically, a subspecies of the common spotted orchid. Closer examination in the future might reveal some genetic trait that deems this pretty flower a species in its own right. It does, after all, tend to flower later than its common spotted neighbours.
For many years O’Kelly’s orchid was thought to be restricted to the Burren. It was named after another amateur botanist, Patrick Bernard O’Kelly, who made a living hunting and uprooting rare Burren plants, which he sold to visitors to his nursery in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare. A few specimens of O’Kelly’s have since been found on the Isle of Man and a few more in Eastern Scotland. And now they are in Mayo as well.
They have actually been with us for some time, for Chris Huxley remembers finding a solitary flowering stem on the shores of Lough Carra some 15 years ago, close to where the pictured specimen was found. Carra might rightly be considered the northernmost extremity of the Burren and certainly deserves the same level of environmental protection. It supports other Burren specialities as well, including such rarities as the Dense-flowered orchid and Spring gentian.
The website Wildflowers of Ireland calls O’Kelly’s orchid ‘one of the Burren’s greatest treasures’. O’Kelly himself referred to it as a ‘gem of the first water’.
We have an abundance of such gems and treasures at our feet. A wide diversity of wild flowers leads to a wide diversity of other life forms. Bees, moths, butterflies and more depend on the flowers, and we depend very much on these insects. If we look after them, they will look after us. The worst possible thing we could do is place new parameters on what we call these ‘lower forms of life’. If we restrict them we restrict ourselves.