Country diary: tapering spires rise from the common spotted-orchids

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Country diary: tapering spires rise from the common spotted-orchids

Allendale, Northumberland: I made a small meadow, allowing existing grasses and dormant wildflowers to grow

Rust-coloured pods of the common spotted-orchid split open down their length like miniature bamboo lanterns.

Mon 11 Oct 2021 00.30 EDT

For years they grew in a single slab of turf, a fragment of a friend’s lawn, given to me in a box. Three common spotted-orchids, Dactylorhiza fuchsii, flowering each summer in their temporary sward until I moved house and could set them free. Making use of poor soil in a rubble-filled corner, I made a small meadow, allowing existing grasses and dormant wildflowers to grow. I added cowslips, ragged robin, bird’s-foot trefoil – and released the orchids.

Giving the meadow its annual late summer cut, I worked carefully around them, so they stood on their own; they mature later than other plants. Now they judder in an autumn wind that will blow and distribute their dust-fine seeds. Rust-coloured pods, still joined at base and top, have split open down their length like miniature bamboo lanterns. As the wind passes through them, the spore-like seeds are released. These may settle where I raked up the cut grass, scratching bare places for hay rattle seed to meet the soil. Or they may surprise me somewhere, like the plant I found flowering this spring among lawn chamomile on the far side of the garden.

Being such tiny seeds, they have no food store and can only germinate through a symbiotic relationship with a fungus from the soil. Orchid mycorrhiza, often the Ceratobasidium group, infect the seeds, the fungus helping the orchid obtain food and remaining in its root cells. This strategy means thousands of ultra-light airborne seeds can be produced to travel on the slightest breeze. It was so as not to disrupt this fungal relationship that I kept my gift in its original block of lawn.

My orchids bloom in July. Tapering spires rise from the purple-blotched leaves that inspire their common name. The flowers have symmetrical beauty in their markings, deep purple loops and stripes on a background of pale pink. By October their stems are shrivelled brown.

A cranefly rests motionless, neatly aligned with a stalk, front legs stretched out, dark grey eyes bulging. Strands of gossamer are caught on a bent seedhead, and the orchid’s numerous seeds are buffeted by the wind to somewhere new.

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