OF ALL our native wildflowers orchids excite an enthusiasm which can verge on the obsessive. Some orchids are exceptionally rare, their locations guarded as nature’s crown jewels; others are less fussy and can be found in habitats as diverse as the skeletal soils of road cuttings and scruffy backplots. Here’s an introduction to some that you are most likely to see:

Early Purple Orchid - Orchis mascula

As heralded by its name Early Purple Orchids are the first of our native orchids to bloom. These are bold orchids, strong enough to flower in the light shade of a coppice wood or out in the open grassland of a road verge. Before hedgerow trees come into leaf there are blooms of episcopal purple that brighten the lanes of the Test Valley and the heavier soils of downland. Even when not in flower the Orchid is readily identifiable by its glossy rosettes patch with dark blotches. The scientific name Orchis relates to the Greek for testicle, reflecting the shape of its swollen roots. Apothecaries once took this to be a sign indicating a medicinal use for that part of the body.

Green-Winged Orchid - Anacamptis morio

Green-winged orchids will not tolerate any shade so they are strongly associated with sunny grasslands. The flowering periods of Early Purple and Green-winged Orchids can overlap with superficially similar flowers. Green-winged Orchids blooms sport fine green veins in their upper petals which can range from deep purple through various pinks to pure white. Until the advent of modern farming this orchid was one of the most widespread and common grassland species. Intolerant of artificial fertilisers and herbicides Green-Winged Orchids are now mostly confined to nature reserves such as Hoe Road Meadow in Bishop’s Waltham. This is an orchid which occasionally makes an appearance in churchyards and on gently gardened lawns. If given the opportunity populations can boom if open habitats are left to colonise naturally such as on the old gravel pits of our nature reserve at Headley in North Hampshire.

Pyramidal Orchid - Anacamptis pyramidalis

Botanists did not appreciate the close relationship between Pyramidal and Green-Winged Orchids until scientists unravelled the plants’ DNA. The association is surprising as there is very little in common about their flowers, Pyramidal Orchids sport a long spur at the end of which is nectar to entice moths to drink. The hapless insects become the involuntary vector of the orchid’s pollen which is carries in adhesive club-like structures from flower to flower. The pollination of orchids fascinated Charles Darwin who considered the evolutionary processes resulting in plants using insects rather than the wind to disperse their pollen. Pyramidal Orchids grow on most of the Trust’s chalk grassland nature reserves as well as unlikely places such as road

Stars in the grass, by Caroline Meech, Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust