Thursday, July 16, 2015

Bird's nest orchid

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is about this strange plant, bird's nest orchid Neottia nidus-avis.

I've only found it on three occasions. 

The first was when I was 18, in my final year at secondary school and studying for university entrance examinations. As the only pupil taking botany A level ( now a long-extinct qualification) I was lucky to be taught by Bill Jackson, a teacher who had done an M.Sc. with the noted botanist Herbert Baker. Bill was a good field botanist who gave me a lot of encouragement and suggested that I should do a field project on orchids in Sussex, so I spent many days when I should have been at school  out on the South Downs, looking for these exotic plants. 

On one memorable day I found bird's nest orchid in a beech wood and photographed it. A few months later, when I went for the university interview, I took the pictures with me. My interviewer had never seen the plant and we spent almost the whole time talking about it. Finding that orchid was most probably a significant factor in being offered a place at university. 

I was thirty years before I found the plant again, in a hazel coppice in a wooded valley in Co. Durham. This time it was a pretty miserable specimen, but it was a real delight to see it again. Every year after that we searched the area in July, hoping that it would reappear, without success until a few weeks ago.

I was tipped off that something that sounded very much like bird's nest orchid had been seen there. We searched the original site in the hazel coppice again, but there was no sign of it. Then, when we turned for home, disappointed, my wife spotted this magnificent specimen in an unlikely place ...

....... growing amongst widely spaced hazels, amongst hay meadow species like meadow cranesbill and pignut.

This is an unlikely plant association because bird's nest orchid is usually found in woodland in deep shade, especially in beech woods where there is very little ground flora.

The plant has no chlorophyll, so has no need of sunlight. Its nutrition depends entirely on a fungus called Sebacina that in turn forms a symbiotic, mycorrhizal association with surrounding tree roots. The fungus gets its sugars from the trees and it in turn enhances the tree roots' capacity to absorb minerals from the soil. The orchid contributes nothing to the relationship, merely living off of the fungus.

The flowers produce a vast number of dust-like  seeds but their chances of landing near the essential fungus are slim. After germination the plant takes a decade to reach flowering size and only flowers once before dying, although it is said that its rudimentary root system, which resembles an underground bird nest, can produce further plants in subsequent years. So we'll certainly be going back next year to see if that is the case.


  1. Not heard of that variety before. A magnificent specimen.

    1. It looks so much more attractive when it has the sun on it. The plant looks quite dull in shady woodland.

  2. Congratulations, Phil , for spotting such an elusive plant! I was thrilled to read your article in the Guardian today.

    1. Thanks lotusleaf - most kind. Best wishes, Phil

  3. Magnificent specimen, I've only ever found one and that was a feeble looking one in Grass Woods, Wharfedale in Yorkshire about three years ago.

    1. Grass woods is a lovely spot though, isn't it? Seem to remember it has lily-of-the-valley growing in it.....? Only ever been once - must go back!

  4. Replies
    1. Have to admit I was a bit thrilled, Toffeeapple.

  5. Hi Phil, excellent blog on nature in the North East!
    Are you aware the EU’s looking at weakening key laws which protect birds, animals and plants in Europe? The Birds and Habitats Directives are currently undergoing a ‘fitness check’, but we want your help telling the European Commission to safeguard the laws, not undermine them!
    The directives have stopped the decline of a number of species and have created a huge network of conservation areas.
    We’ve got until Friday night to make our views known on this – can you encourage your followers to put their name to the Nature Alert campaign please, every person helps!


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