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17 September 2014
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Grasslands - Kent Downs

Orchid safari

Kent Downs

The Kent Downs stretch from the White Cliffs of Dover to the London and Surrey borders. They are designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. There's a great display of wild flowers and Orchids in the summer time.

 

Kent Downs. Photo - West Kent Downs Countryside Trust


Queen Down Warren in North Kent is a pristine downland valley which in the summer is teeming with flowers and insects.

Its star species is the Orchid, the femme fatales of the plant world.

Kent is a great place to find them not just for sheer numbers, but for some of the rarest varieties.

Wild flower wonderland

Orchid (Image c/o Kent Wildlife Trust)Kent is so good for the Orchids because many of the rarest like chalk downlands and a warm climate.

As a result it's possible to find Orchids that are common on the continent, but rare elsewhere in UK.

Eleven different species have been recorded on the Kent Downs reserve including the pyramidal and fragrant varieties.

Pyramidal Orchids have flowers that appear to be upside down like pyramids, hence the name.

The fragrant Orchid has a sickly, sweet scent which is strongest in evening.

These Orchids are pollinated by butterflies so the valley is teeming with them including the rare Adonis Blue butterfly, especially in June.

Another unusual variety is the Man Orchid, which is nationally rare, is found only in the South East of England, and Kent is one of its strongholds.

The lips are shaped like a tiny pendulous human figure, the two narrow side lobes forming the arms and the long forked central lobe forming the legs - Red Ants pollinate these Orchids.

Orchid oasis

OrchidJust down the road about 20 miles away in East Kent is a tiny reserve in which is also jam-packed with Orchids.

The site has been carefully managed to encourage little flowers and Orchid - no pesticides have been used for many years.

The land is also grazed by Konig ponies to keep grass short and encourage rarities.

The Konigs are the nearest we have to original wild ponies - they used to roam Europe.

Amongst the flowers is the Great Butterfly Orchid, a tall plant a foot or so high with flowers that are white cross shaped.

Its highly scented blooms attract moths and insects at night time.

The Fly Orchid resembles wingless bluebottles impaled on the stalk - and secretes sex pheromones that attract male Digger Wasps.

The Common Twayblade is relatively common but like many orchids has extraordinary life cycle - it can take up to 15 years before it flowers.

Germination and growth

Orchid (Image: West Kent Downs Countryside Trust.)Part of the Orchid's mystery is how it germinates and grows.

Tiny seeds carry little in way of food reserves, not only must the site where they fall have ideal conditions of light, moisture and warmth, but the tiny plant which germinates must become infected immediately with a fungus from the soil if it is to survive.

The plant derives soil nutrients from the fungus.

The Lady Orchid is a rarity which is virtually confined to Kent with a three lobed lip which resembles a small figure in crinoline.

They're amazing plants, popping up in hundreds, then disappearing completely the following year.

They sometimes colonise the most unlikely places including roadside verges.

Another rarity is the Monkey Orchid which has been reduced to just two sites in Oxfordshire and Kent.

Its lip has four narrow lobes that curl forwards, the arms and legs plus a short tail.

On the continent, where both the Monkey and the Man Orchids are much commoner, they occasionally hybridise, producing what has been nicknamed the "missing link orchid".

Golf and flowers

Orchid image couresy and copyright of West Kent Downs Countryside Trust.Our third location is the Royal St George's golf course on the coast of East Kent not far from Ramsgate.

It's highly unusual but this famous golf course is an ideal habitat for the Lizard Orchid.

There are several theories about why this Orchid does so well in this strange locality.

Some say that its seeds spread by golfers' shoes and wheels of trolleys, whilst others say that the flower just likes the sand dunes.

Once this was one of very few places it could be found - now it happily seems to be spreading.

Its tall and distinctive, untidy looking flower has a spike which bears up to 80 flowers.

The lip bears a fanciful resemblance to tail and hind legs of lizard.

It certainly shows that Orchids don't always conform to the habitats that we expect to find them in!

Photo Credits

Orchid images courtesy and copyright of West Kent Downs Countryside Trust.

 

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