A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Greater Tongue Orchids - Tiptree, Essex!

When a colony of Greater Tongue Orchids was discovered in Essex during the summer of 2017, the race was on to track the plants down and establish whether they were naturally occurring or had arrived artificially. With just a single photo of several flowering spikes in a field to go on (which was hastily removed from the Facebook page to which it was posted) several of the orchid world's enthusiasts expertly narrowed down the location, and by carefully checking the vegetation on site to that in the photo, were remarkably able to pin down the exact spot where these exotic orchids were growing.
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Sadly, by the time they were found all but a very small handful of the plants had completely gone over, and as such, arrangements were kindly made for a number of organised visits last summer so those interested could admire these Mediterranean beauties in all their glory.

Therefore, at the beginning of June last year, me and my Dad made the long journey down to Essex and were met on site by local resident Jonathan who showed us the exact location in the meadows where this small cluster of orchids were growing, thankfully in prime condition despite the scorching sun and allowing for excellent photographic opportunities (despite some tripod issues!).
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
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Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
With around 36 plants in flower last year, the number was slightly down on 2017's showing, but luckily each delicate maroon flowering spike was in top condition (I had actually been away in America the previous week so was a bit concerned the flowers may have been past their best by the time I got there) and the colony had been carefully marked out with several small canes to prevent trampling by unaware dog walkers.
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
However, despite the excitement of such a remarkable botanical find, the question remains: are the Tiptree Greater Tongue Orchids naturally occurring or did they arrive through artificial means?

With orchid seed being particularly fine and easily carried by the wind, there is of course every possibility that seed from the continent had blown over naturally, with the nearest populations occurring in France, Spain and Italy. However, a number of other circumstances need to be considered before determining whether these continental plants really did make it over here without a little bit of human help.

A single specimen could easily have been planted out by a keen botanist or gardener many years ago, reproducing year on year to result in the small colony seen now (the plants were all restricted to a tiny area about a metre squared in size and found nowhere else on the meadows as you would expect from plants in a natural continental setting). Likewise, seed blown artificially from plants growing in a pot in a nearby garden could have easily kick started a colony.

However, this would be an odd site for a deliberate planting, and no pot grown specimens are growing nearby to our knowledge - even if they were, the Greater Tongue Orchids natural pollinator is not known to occur in Britain, making seed set very unlikely without assistance. 

Upon talking to Jonathan, he explained that decades ago the meadows were used as strawberry fields alongside a plant nursery that amongst other things was known to grow tropical orchids. This therefore creates an entirely feasible scenario of Tongue Orchid seed being accidentally imported - getting in to the mix of soil, clippings and cuttings discarded on site and germinating, eventually becoming established and naturalised - in my opinion the most likely origin.
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
This is not the first occurrence of Greater Tongue Orchid in the UK however, with a small well-known colony of Greater Tongue Orchids situated at Wakehurst Place in Sussex alongside the introduced Loose-flowered Orchids (never proven but very unlikely to be of natural origin as a consequence). Three flower spikes were also discovered near to the coast in Kingsbridge, south Devon back in 1998, but once again, their origins were never proven - some suspecting seed had come from an artificial source such as a nearby plant collection or agricultural seed mix. 

Small-flowered Tongue Orchids have also previously gotten a very shallow toehold on British soil in the past with individuals cropping up near Rame Head in SE Cornwall, having first been discovered there in 1989, but sadly disappearing in the early 2000s. With seed suspected to have blown in from the continent as opposed to a deliberate planting due to the remote location, it's entirely probable these were the result of natural colonisation from across the channel.

It’s likely that we’ll never know for certain the origins of the Tiptree plants, but whatever their background, the Tongue Orchids have clearly been on site for a number of years now, vegetatively reproducing to increase in number each year and creating a naturalised and self-sustaining population in the process. 
Greater Tongue Orchids - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchids - Tiptree, Essex
The Tongue Orchids have reproduced vegetatively to cover a small patch of ground in the meadow
Greater Tongue Orchids - Tiptree, Essex
Spot the Tongue Orchid! The small patch where the orchids were growing
Unfortunately despite being the only known 'natural' colony in Britain, the Tiptree Tongue Orchids face an uncertain future, with developers knocking on the door eager to build on the site despite the protestations of residents and orchid enthusiasts alike. This year, due to the sensitivities of the site, visitors are also being asked to keep away. Hopefully some sort of compromise can be found, where the future of the orchids is secured and many more people can get to enjoy them for years to come - it would be a real shame indeed if these fascinating plants were to be lost almost as quickly as they were found.
Greater Tongue Orchid - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchids - Tiptree, Essex
Greater Tongue Orchid Meadow - Tiptree, Essex
The meadow in Tiptree, Essex where the Greater Tongue Orchids were found

3 comments:

  1. Precioso reportaje, me ha gustado mucho. Saludos desde España.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I thought the site was an Essex Wildlife site? Jonathan pointed me to that place but they'd all gone over when I went there this week.

    ReplyDelete
  3. As far as I know I don't think Essex Wildlife bought the site - it was up for development and was owned privately (this may well have changed since I visited though)

    ReplyDelete

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