Orchids eh

One of the pleasures of living on the Western Isles is watching the predominant colours change as early spring evolves into late, and late spring into summer.

The yellows of the early wildflowers on the machair – the unique and highly fertile land environment specific to the Hebrides consisting of an alkali top dressing, drawn naturally from seashell fragments blown ashore by the winds as well as from crofters’ use of seaweed as a fertiliser, on top of an acid base founded on peat – give way firstly to whites and then to reds, blues and purples. Yellow flag iris, birds foot trefoil and buttercups – yes, and dandelions (grr); daisies, eyebright, bog cotton, water lilies, clover, yarrow and cow parsley; red clover, thrift, ragged robin, knapweed, cranesbills and harebell. The blurred boundaries between the arrivals and departures of the various colours lead to breathtaking displays of nature at its fertile, naturally cohesive best. As well as a real reward for not cutting the grass.

And they also lead, in summer, to orchids.

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The spotted leaves give this away as a heath spotted-orchid (thanks to Rebecca Cotton for the ID!) though orchids are notorious hybridisers and there could, as a result, be all kinds of things in this one’s particular DNA. In warm conditions, heath spotted-orchids can be up to 40 cms (16″) high and feature a cone, or pyramid, of up to 50 flowers, though orchids also come in dwarf varieties – as apparently this one seems to be: just two flowers and little more than a handful of centimetres high, as the daisy (placed here for comparative flower size, not height purposes – the orchid is shorter) highlights. And no more than a pair of those spotted leaves.

They’re also pretty hardy – this one was found right underneath a washing line in regular use, and on a patch of our own machair which is mown quite regularly; either or both of which might well account for this one’s cropped top. A similar specimen subsequently discovered a few feet away (and with a total of a massive four flowers) was right underneath one of the washing line posts and existing on a few centrimetres of soil cast cosmetically on top of the several inches of concrete in which the post is embedded and which has been recolonised by nature. Mind you, if it’s warm conditions that lead to taller and more plentiful flower spikes, the general weather conditions on South Uist might well indicate a more natural than human explanation for this one’s more stunted, but nevertheless determined growth.

In contrast to the rather fragile exotic orchids beloved of flower shops and home design specialists, that these orchids have to struggle to survive in tough conditions (aside of the comforting soil of the machair) makes them a more than suitable metaphor for the Western Isles themselves. On top of this, their diversity and ability to develop hybrid versions of themselves provide an inspiring route map for essential survival and regeneration. Together, all this leads to orchids fast becoming my favourite wildflower – hence my delight at finding versions right on our own patch!

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