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Alternative Plant of the Moment - Mid-April 2020

I should have written more of these. Missed a few 'alternatives' being locked down. Needless to say, they would have been interesting and challenging.

Today's alternative plant of the moment is equally as interesting to see as it would be challenging to deliberately grow (I think). The truth is, I haven't ever tried to grow it as I've only ever seen it a few times in the wilds of rural Sussex and Kent and it seems like something that one shouldn't try to grow as you dilute the magic of seeing it in the countryside.

It is perfectly hardy, very and surprisingly hardy even. Just, it tends to be something that will appear rather than be purposely planted. It might be an easy thing to grow; I cannot say. Feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

The UK has around 50 species of native orchids as well as some that have hybridised and a handful of localised subspecies. The Early-Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) is an absolute beauty and interesting as it is always early, even if the weather is against it. Weirdly, with a species name like 'mascula' you would think that the Male Orchid would make more sense as a common name. The Early-Purple Orchid is an undeniably apt name though, as it flowers early and is purpley-pink in colour.

Orchis mascula (Early-Purple Orchid) LN 14 April 2020.
Orchis mascula (Early-Purple Orchid) LN 14 April 2020.

My experiences of it in the South-East of England are that is starts flowering in April and although I know it can still be in flower in Mid-June, I haven't encountered it that late. What I can say for sure is that it is an absolute showstopper!

I'm not an expert in orchids; like many, I've killed my fair share of Phalaenopsis at home over the years, through poor management and intermittent neglect. I will add, that I am now a fairly decent grower of Phalaenopsis, but my point on orchid awkwardness stands. Most of my knowledge on hardy, native orchids comes from two sources - personal experience and a good book. Experience of 30+ years of interest in plants (I know, hard to believe that I'm that old). My preferred book on UK orchids was written by a man I had the pleasure of meeting some years ago, when I was giving a talk to a horticultural group that he was a member of. David Lang is a retired Dentist and expert 'amateur' botanist/naturalist who has written extensively on the subject as well as his expeditions to the Sikkim (which is a fascinating read by the way). He wrote 'A Guide to the Wild Orchids of Great Britain and Ireland' and after meeting him, I bought it and all of his other books, mostly out of print, from Amazon the following day.

David writes in this book, 'The Early-Purple Orchid lives up to its name and is often the first orchid to flower in the spring. I have even seen flowers fully out on 13 April 1966, in Sussex, standing up bravely above a heavy fall of snow. The flowering period is long and plants will still be found in flower in mid-June.' The photos used through this post were taken on the 14th of April 2020 in East Sussex, almost matching David's observation, but in very different weather conditions 54 years later.

Orchis mascula (Early-Purple Orchid) LN 14 April 2020.
Orchis mascula (Early-Purple Orchid) LN 14 April 2020.

Wild orchids are enigmatic things. They make their own way through the world and really are truly wild plants, less keen on being civilised and tamable than most. The alchemy of soil, site and circumstance that combine to encourage them to germinate, grow and establish themselves in a garden or landscape seems impossible to replicate. Some things are best left to chance rather than contrived. This, I believe is one of these things.

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Lovely post, Lewis. I enjoyed your lyrical account of this stunning wild orchid. Fascinating to hear your story about meeting David Lang and for crediting his influence and knowledge of orchids. Lovely photographs too.

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