Thursday, 28 June 2012

Butterfly orchids and the price of milk

Hardier than their namesakes, the greater butterfly orchids in the meadow were out today, despite the many days of rain.

Two weeks ago they were short, acid green spikes hidden among the grass and pignut. Now the spikes are stretching, and the first lime-lipped white flowers are beginning to open. They are still hard to spot. The meadow grasses are tall, and, drenched with rain, they form an unruly thatch above the heads of the orchids. But once you get your eye in they emerge from the crowd like film stars in a street scene. I counted seven in a small patch no bigger than a picnic rug.

It says in my field guide that they smell of vanilla - another orchid from much more exotic climes. I didn't crouch down to find out. It was very wet, and I suspect I'd need to wait until the flowers were more open, and maybe for the evening. The hooded, cup-shaped upper petals look made for moths. Perhaps I'll try in a week or two. The lower petals are long and thin. More mayflies or plume moths than butterflies, if you ask me.

Greater butterfly orchids aren't especially rare, but they aren't that common either. Like many other grassland species they are always under threat from 'improvement' - grasslands ploughed up, fertilised and resown with coarse monocultures of grazing ryegrass to give us the cheap milk we apparently want. It isn't going to happen in our meadow, but there are still many places where it will. And worse, the same nitrogen fertilisers that turn the fields poster-paint green each spring are leaching like toxic potions into less-intensively managed grasslands, turning the grasses into Incredible Hulks that swamp the more delicate, and specialised wild flowers. As usual, cheapness comes at a price.

* It's the school summer break now in Scotland, so life will be busy with holidays, families and other distractions. I'm aiming to try to keep the blog going on an occasional basis over the next eight weeks, but apologises if things slip. I'll flag up any additions on Twitter. Things should return to normal by the middle of August. Have a good summer.

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