Only fools and orchids

Only fools and orchids

Fly Orchid © Philip Precey

Not only are wild orchids beautiful to look at, they are also the undisputed masters of mimicry.

Fly orchid

Fly orchids are one of our most fascinating and deceptive species. Their tall, slender stems are punctuated by small, dark flowers that resemble flies clustering around the plant. Each flower has two glistening ‘eyes’ that add to the illusion.

This plant does not produce nectar, but instead secretes a scent that mimics the sexual pheromones of a female wasp. This, combined with the shape and texture of the flowers, proves irresistible to male digger wasps, who attempt to mate with the flowers and inadvertently pollinate the plant. You may find fly orchids at Chappetts Copse nature reserve in the Meon Valley. They tend to flower from late April to June.

Bee orchid

The flowers of this exotic looking orchid closely resemble fat, furry bumblebees. They have evolved to attract male bumblebees who unwittingly try to mate with the flowers. However, despite its powers of deception, bee orchids are largely self-pollinated. Soon after the flowers open they release their pollinia (little clusters of pollen), which dangle on the end of flexible stalks. A slight gust of wind is all it takes for the pollen to be carried to the stigma.

You may see bee orchids at Noar Hill nature reserve in Alton between early June and late July.

Greater butterfly orchid

This elegant plant is adorned with beautiful greenish-white flowers which look like little butterflies. When night falls, the flowers almost glow in the dark, and emit a subtle fragrance which attracts night-flying hawk moths. The plant must attract hawk moths in particular as they have very long proboscises, enabling them to reach the orchid’s nectar.

You may see greater butterfly orchids between June and August around woodland clearings in the north of Hampshire, or in long grass on chalk grasslands.

Frog orchid

This diminutive orchid gets its name from its flowers – strangely, they resemble the back legs of a frog. They vary in colour from yellowish-green to reddish-brown, and release a subtle scent which attracts a variety of insects. Beetles and wasps are very fond of the frog orchid. It is a short-lived species – most plants die after just one year above ground.

Frog orchids are extinct in many counties across Britain due to habitat loss, but they do well in Hampshire, particularly at St Catherine’s Hill nature reserve in Winchester. They tend to flower between early June and August.