Monday 14 April 2014

Hunting the Ghost Orchid

When the April issue of New Journal of Botany comes out later this month, you will be able to read about the history of the Ghost Orchid Epipogion aphyllum in Britain. This enigmatic and elusive plant was famously declared extinct and then refound in the same week in 2009. Sean Cole, the author of the NJB paper, has long been fascinated by the plant, so I asked him to tell us when his love affair with the Ghost started.

The diary that launched a love affair...
Image: S. Cole
Sean said "Christmas, 1978:  I was given a “World Wildlife Fund 1979 Wildlife Diary” and it changed my life. It included a section on some of Britain’s rarest wildlife, including two species of Orchid – the Lady’s Slipper and the Ghost. Both were accompanied by delicate monochrome line-drawings. The Lady’s Slipper caught my imagination, especially when I later saw a picture in glorious colour. I became intent on seeing one in the flesh. In June 2000, I was taken to Yorkshire to see the only wild British Lady’s Slipper. It was a truly stunning flower, but my 21 year wait for it ended in disappointment: access to the plant was forbidden, and it had to be viewed from 100 metres distance! We were also given a piece of paper telling us not to tell anyone about it, or indeed to never return!

Sean in the field
Courtesy of S. Cole
"Later that year I was given more information about the Ghost, including site details, so I set about finding out how to see one of those. Maybe that would be more fulfilling. Little did I realise how difficult it would be. This was not like other Orchids, all of which flowered annually and were viewable at known sites. In this case, not only did it not flower every year, but when it did, it could have been any time between May and October!! To make things worse, it never flowers in the same place twice. I wondered how people ever managed to see them.

"The internet proved to be a valuable resource, and the more information I gathered, the more people were willing to impart their extra piece of knowledge, so I collected every morsel I could and began visiting sites, hoping I could beat the odds and win the Botanical EuroMillions Lottery. An unfinished quest itches and itches and never goes away, and finally, in 2005, I saw Ghost Orchid. In fact, I saw over 600! But I had to go to south-west Germany. It was a landmark day in my life, yet still it wasn’t enough. The sheer magnitude of seeing this rarest of things in my own country was the only true satisfaction. But at least I’d “got my eye in” and had a better chance.

Ghost Orchid at Marlow, 1953
Courtesy National Museum, Wales
"On a visit to Leicester University Herbarium, I saw my first ever British Ghost Orchid – a tiny dried specimen taken from Marlow in 1953, at the site of the most amazing Ghostly event ever to happen in British history. The time when Rex Graham lit his pipe, and looked over the bowl of it to see one of what turned out to be 25 Ghosts at a place where they’d never been seen before! More than anyone had ever seen collectively in Britain. I wanted that kind of moment. 

"There followed visits to other museums holding British and continental specimens. I photographed, measured and recorded each, to fulfil my new aim of recording every British sighting of the species – something that had never been done before, partly due to the extreme secrecy surrounding the species. It is understandable, given that some of the specimens were of underground parts dug up by collectors desperate to prove they had the star prize to show to their counterparts.

Sean is also a serious birder!
Courtesy S. Cole
"In 2009 the worst - and yet the best – happened. A Ghost Orchid, by then feared extinct (again!) – was found. By someone else. I got a phone call saying that this time it was almost certainly a genuine find. I phoned the person involved, who had been sworn to secrecy. The day after this plant had been eaten by a slug, a friend who I had alerted to the possibility of its presence, found the spot.

"Each year since 2000 I have visited places to try and find Ghosts. All of the places I have found out about over those years, I’ve not just visited them once. One year I went to search 11 times, with no luck. The best possibility, the 2009 site in Herefordshire, has been visited several times each year since then. The problem now is that trees around the spot were cut down in 2012, and now it just isn’t likely that it will reappear. The very secrecy that was supposed to protect the plant has caused its demise.

Ghost Orchid at High Heavens Wood, Bucks., 1970
Image: Courtesy of M.B. Fuller 
"This is why I am publishing the data on the Occurrence of the Ghost in Britain. This is why I am helping to organise a co-ordinated search this year; - to increase the chance that I – and many others like me – will get to make my dream a reality".

 If you want to talk to Sean about his hunt for the elusive Ghost, email us at New Journal of Botany and I can put you in touch with him. Click on the images shown here to enlarge them - like this page from Sean's scrapbook (below) showing newspaper cuttings about the Ghost Orchid. And watch out for Sean's paper in the April issue (members only, sorry!).   


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