At this time of year plant growth is spectacular. There is urgency to grow and produce flowers to attract insect or wind pollinators in order to set seed to ensure future generations so it is all systems go on the photosynthesis front. It is a wonderfully unfolding pageant available to anyone who opens their eyes to witness nature’s profusion.
A group of plants that rarely fails to enthral is that of the orchid. There are lots of orchids on the riverside but they can be overlooked amongst the general explosion of growth and colour. Many species are not particularly rare although the bee orchid was reported as such last year. In fact the bee orchid is very common in Sudbury. Sadly, however, it is rarely permitted to flower where people might see it.
The glaucous rosettes of leaves of the bee orchid appear in December and are very obvious in the short turf at that time of year. They can appear in good numbers on the banks and in short grass around Springlands but their very nature dictates that they can pop up almost anywhere. Unfortunately they are prone to being mown down long before they have a chance to push up a flower stem and so wither away never to be seen. However, where they escape the mower or strimmer they can push up a fine stem carrying around seven individual ‘bees’ of exquisite beauty. For a plant to mimic an insect takes considerable time in evolutionary terms, adjusting the flowers a little with each generation to improve the mimicry and thus fool and attract the insect bee to pollinate.
Although climate change is enabling the bee orchid to move further north it is still at the limit of its range for what is effectively a Mediterranean plant. From tiny seed to final flowering takes seven years and then the plant dies away forever so cutting it down before the seed pods have browned and ripened means that it will have no offspring in seven years’ time.
The location of these beautiful plants should not be a secret to those who delight in such things and sometimes they can appear in considerable profusion in one place and then disappear. Happily, every year there are plenty of bee orchids that can be found on a June country ramble if the soil and aspect is suitable. Indeed ‘A Flora of Suffolk’ records that it is a ‘widespread and locally frequent plant where it can sometimes be found in large numbers… small numbers can appear almost anywhere including domestic lawns and even on old heaps of builder’s rubble’. So it is well worthwhile checking Sudbury lawns for those rosettes of leaves during December and marking them with a stick so that springtime mowing doesn’t destroy them. What greater delight could there be than to enjoy your own exquisitely beautiful bee orchids in the garden? However, do let them seed before cutting them down.