Rare red helleborine orchid blooms in Cotswold woodland

Red helleborine The red helleborine is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

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An "extremely rare and endangered" orchid which was once on the brink of extinction in the UK is blooming again in Gloucestershire.

Red helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra, is normally found in Europe where it is classed as "vulnerable" and only exists on three sites in southern England.

Seven years ago there were only three plants at the National Trust site in the Cotswolds.

Now, following conservation work there are some 30 plants at the location.

National Trust countryside ranger Tim Jenkins said although the species had been recorded in the beech woodlands site - which he asked the BBC not to identify - for some 70 years, it was only in recent years that the number of plants had increased and they were starting to flower regularly.

He said little was known about the precise habitat and growing conditions so conservation work was going on at the site in an attempt to optimise the surroundings to allow the orchid to flourish

"We don't fully understand how the plant reproduces here as the particular bee that normally pollinates it [in Europe] is not found in the UK.

"We've tried manually pollinating the orchid and even taking cuttings but we've not had any luck yet but we are sharing our knowledge with experts at Kew Gardens and Natural England.

"To improve the soil temperature and increase light levels we've cleared some trees and the area undergoes intensive management in the winter to help improve the growing conditions," Mr Jenkins added.

There are some 50 species of wild orchid in the UK and the red helleborine is one of the rarest.

It is classified as "critically endangered" in Great Britain and protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Red helleborine

Red helleborine
  • Critically endangered in the UK
  • Considered "vulnerable" in parts of Europe
  • Found in deciduous woodland
  • Likes chalky alkaline soil
  • Fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981

Source: Kew Gardens website

Mr Jenkins said he hoped one year to be able to harvest seed pods from the plant and send them off to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew to be propagated.

"We're working with Kew and Natural England to try to optimise the surroundings to give it the best possible chance of surviving and multiplying.

"It's a huge responsibility to look after the area and improve the helleborine's lot

"Each year I get a real buzz when I come here to see how many plants have come up and look forward to how many flowers we're going to get.

"The flowers typically open for between a week and 10 days before they fade and fall off.

"In the future I'd like to reintroduce the red helleborine to all the sites on the Cotswolds where it has been spotted in the past," he added.

Retired vet and orchid expert David Lang, from east Sussex, agreed the red helleborine was a very rare sight in the UK.

"It's been an awful year for some of our orchids. Some haven't even broken through the ground because of the intense cold earlier this year.

"And not all of them flower every year - you've been really lucky to have seen it."

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