July is the perfect time to go in search of one of the showiest and fascinating types of wildflower. A good colony of orchids can reach several thousand in number, and often this could be dominated by a single species with other rarer orchids amongst them. Fragrant orchids waft their honey-like scent on the wind in a fine breeze.
Moths play an important role in orchid pollination, with several types of orchid releasing their fragrance at night to entice moths to their flowers. We also know that not all moths pollinate equally, with relationships between orchids dependent on just a handful of species. Flies are also underrated in this process where we are only just scratching the surface of their role within the ecosystem.
In this blog I’m going to look at a few of the most common orchids you are likely to find in the Cairngorms and share with you a few photos of the less common ones from a very special place; RSPB Insh Marshes. This reserve is one of only three places in the Cairngorms to have kept its rich and diverse wildflower communities that were once a common feature of the landscape; now largely absent.
The forest at Abernethy is not without a rare orchid or two either, with creeping ladies tresses strongly associated with pine and found only in surviving areas of ancient Caledonian forest. This delicate an unobtrusive orchid with a green stem and little white flowers can be quite numerous along sections of the trails at our Loch Garten visitor centre when you know where to look and what to look for. So why can this orchid only be found in ancient pine woods? In this blog I hope to answer this for you, to the best of our current understanding of course.
Creeping Ladies Tresses (Goodyera repens)
Let’s start with the Northern Marsh orchid that is one of the three most numerous and widespread orchids to be found in Scotland. The petals are spotted although the leaves are not. Their colour tends to be a deep purple to pink flower. As their name suggests they like to grow in damp soil. A good meadow will have a mixture of drier and wetter soils with tall and short grasses, all of which help to provide good conditions that suit a diversity of plants within the meadow.
Second is the Heath Spotted orchid which tends to be a much paler pink blush to almost white in appearance. Its leaves at the base of the orchid are very distinctive with large black spots running as splodges along the long rather thin green leaves. This is very helpful for identification even when only the leaves are visible with the spots being a particularly obvious feature.
Finally, we have the fragrant orchids, as touched on at the start of the blog with their honey like sent, of which there are three. The one is this photograph from Insh Marshes is a Heath Fragrant orchid.
Fragrant Heath Orchid (Gymnadenia borealis)
There is always the option of a sniff test, depending on the time of year, as an identification feature. The leaves are long and green as with the others but, like the Northern Marsh, Fragrant orchids have no spots. The flowers themselves are a strong pink. These orchids can appear in large colonies, although individuals can disperse from the group in places.
Here are two special orchids for you. The Greater Butterfly orchid, distinctive from the Lesser Butterfly orchid by its chunkiness and generally more substantial appearance, is rather beautiful.
Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha)
The Small White orchid is less extravagant with small white flowers, as photographed, which are about as big as the flowers get.
Small White Orchid (Pseudorchis albida)
Returning to Loch Garten, the orchid you should look out for is Creeping Ladies Tresses is equally unobtrusive and delicate although not insignificant in size. This particular orchid is almost exclusively found in Scotland in the UK. It is pollinated by bumble bees including the white-tailed bumblebee.
What makes Creeping Ladies Tresses so special, as indeed all orchids, is its dependency on specific species of fungi that can be found in the soil. Mycelium (microscopic hair-like threads of fungi that form networks underground) are needed in the soil to sustain and grow the orchid from seed.
Orchids have developed seeds, unlike most other flowers, without a store of essential nutrients with the plant embryo. This makes them entirely dependent on nutrients from symbiotic relationships with fungi. The fungi helps the seed to grow, and in return the orchid provides nutrients back to the fungi.
Ploughing destroys complex communities in the soil and this is why it can be so destructive to wild flower populations, and thus so many rich orchid meadows have vanished. Plantlife estimates that forest need to remain undisturbed for up to 95 years to allow these complex relationships to develop. This is one of the reasons we are so proud to have creeping ladies’ tresses growing so close to our centre. It is testament to a forest where the balance of forest, fungi and plants remain. Like any good relationship, time is essential to cultivate these bonds. We can observe the same thing with wood ants which are slow recolonising areas of commercial forestry. These are ancient places that have established slowly over thousands of years and would easily take several centuries before the interconnected and interdependent relationships upon which life is sustained function as they should.
Back in the forest, blaeberry bushes betray the fruits of late summer. Look out for the small yellow flowers of cow wheat and wild thyme flowering along the path to the visitor centre. Warm days have also brought common lizards basking in warm sheltered spots and small-tortoise shell butterflies drinking nectar on the flowering heather.
Why not visit and see what wildflowers you can see at Loch Garten.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654