Giant orchids discovered in the wild in the UK for the first time | Wild flowers


Giant orchids up to one meter tall have officially been discovered growing wild in the UK for the first time, having established themselves hundreds of miles north of their native range in the Mediterranean.

The ‘majestic’ plants were discovered on a grassy slope near Didcot in Oxfordshire by Hamza Nobes, a 29-year-old trainee nurse, who wants to keep the exact location a secret.

Nobes was out for a walk when he saw the pink flower five meters from the path and assumed it was a butterbur, but he scrambled down the steep slope to get a better look and then realized what he had find. The fragrant orchid has many flowers on its stem, which are purplish-red in color, and the leaves are large and shiny.

“I was over the moon. I never really found anything and I’m not a botanist in any way,” said Nobes, who has been interested in orchids for two years.

Typically found in southern and central Europe, the giant orchid (Himantoglossum robertianum) the range is expanding northward as the climate warms, with records showing that the plant is able to survive in northern France and the Netherlands.

“It was weird, because a few weeks ago I was flipping through my book on European orchids and I was looking at the giant orchid and I thought it was such a beautiful orchid, it would be lovely to see it one day, maybe to be in Greece or somewhere else, but really, it was only 10 minutes from my house,” he said.

One of the orchids found on a grassy slope near Didcot. Photography: Ian Denholm/Handout

These plants are not believed to have arrived naturally, but rather by someone dispersing seeds around 15 years ago, a practice discouraged by conservationists because it can lead to invasive species. It is believed that this is also how the species reached the Netherlands. In both cases they have successfully established themselves and are now reproducing.

Locals say the plants bloomed years ago and then disappeared, but no official report has ever been made. This year – perhaps taking advantage of the sunny spring – there are nine flowering plants and 10 non-flowering plants, reaching a maximum of 30cm in height.

“This is a very exciting find,” said Professor Ian Denholm, from the University of Hertfordshire, who is one of two national orchid referees in the UK and visited the site to verify the find. “There was a [giant orchid] seen about 15 years ago, it wasn’t widely reported and it came to me as news actually…it was never really made public, and the plant itself presumably didn’t last a very long time,” Denholm said.

Orchid flowers consist of three outer sepals and three inner petals, and in many species one of the petals is heavily modified as a lip to attract pollinators and give them a place to land. The giant orchid’s lip has lobes that whimsically resemble arms and legs, Denholm says. “It’s a very majestic orchid. It is aptly named the giant orchid. It has a fairly long and dense flower spike.

Orchids are good at telling us about the consequences of global warming because there are so many orchid enthusiasts who record changes in their range over time. Given its expanding range, experts say it’s possible the giant orchid will have colonized the UK naturally at some point in the future.

There have been other reports of tiny seeds of European orchid species blowing over the English Channel to the southern counties of the UK, where they are increasingly able to survive. Last year, a colony of small-flowered orchids – thought to be extinct in the UK – was discovered on the roof of a City of London investment bank. They are generally associated with central and southern Europe, and it is unclear how the seeds got there.

“I always welcome new things,” said Sean Cole, field naturalist and co-author of Britain’s Orchids. He said the discovery was another indication that our climate may increasingly support Mediterranean species. “Anyway, we have 53 or 54 species of orchids, anything new is nice to have. It’s not really going to hinder anything else around it or take over. It’s from the near mainland, so it’s kind of semi-natural for us, it’s not going to take over like Japanese knotweed or something like that.

The orchid, which blooms in March, has proven a hit with early pollinators, including bumblebees, which have been seen on the flowers. “Our local bees welcomed them, so why not us? Cole said.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland has a network of people who keep local records and have been notified of the find. Giant orchids are non-native plants, so they have no legal protection. Orchid enthusiasts are now in communication with the owner of the site and are discussing how best to protect it.


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