The Ghost Orchid
In Britain, the Ghost Orchid has reached an almost mythical status, and is recognised as one of the rarest and most elusive plants to grace our shores. Its diminutive size, pale ethereal appearance, plus its habit of flowering erratically and sporadically have quite rightly earned it a reputation linked with mystery and intrigue. This coupled with a preferred habitat of sun-dappled, dark beechwoods, and short lived appearances, makes it extremely hard to find – living up to its name and exhibiting true ghost-like qualities indeed.
Difficulties in finding plants
The long flowering period, coupled with the fact that plants only appear above ground for a few days at most, and the high risk of slug damage means that finding a flower without the help of volunteers is virtually impossible.
Even in years when plants do flower, their small size and inconspicuousness ensure they are extremely difficult to spot camouflaged in the leaf litter. However, this also means that the Ghost Orchid in Britain in more than likely to be vastly under recorded in our woodlands, and populations could potentially be persisting in hidden locations waiting to be discovered.
The project should give us a better chance of determining whether the Ghost Orchid still resides in its old haunts, and there is a volunteer warden on stand by to ensure that any plants survive.
© Oscar Stahle
© Colin Scrutton
© Colin Scrutton
What causes a Ghost Orchid to flower?
Ghost Orchids lack chlorophyll, so do not need sunlight to survive. Instead, plants are fully dependent on a type of fungi throughout their life cycle, only needing to appear above ground to flower and set seed. Flowering is also thought to be linked to weather patterns, namely wet springs and cold winters, mimicking those found on the continent, as well as being related to light and moisture levels of the surrounding woodland. Without the correct conditions, many years can pass without any flowers being produced, so there is no trace of the plant above ground. There are also reports that the Ghost Orchid is capable of flowering underground, buried in the leaf litter - another factor that makes locating one all the more difficult.
Added to its few remaining sites will be the stanza
I compose about leaves like flakes of skin, a colour
Dithering between pink and yellow, and then the root
That grows like coral among shadows and leaf-litter.
Just touching the petals bruises them into darkness.
The Ghost Orchid - Michael Longley (1995)
Whilst scarce in Britain, Ghost Orchids occur in much higher numbers throughout northern and central Europe. Here it is likely to be found at high altitudes, often up to 1800m. Ghost Orchids have also been recorded in Russia, Japan, China and other parts of northern Asia. Due to the fact that it is only visible when in flower, its inconspicuousness even when flowering, and the nature of plants appearing above ground only sporadically, it is still hard to determine the full geographical distribution of this species.
© Oscar Stahle
© Cedric Detant
Conservation Status in the UK
Shortly after being rediscovered in 2009, the Ghost Orchid was declared extinct by Plantlife. It is currently classed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN red data list, and is included under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This means it is illegal to pick, or dig up any plants. The Ghost Orchid is also the emblem for Plantlifes "Ghost Orchid Declaration" which looks at the key issues concerning wild plant conservation in the UK.