Tuesday, 23 June 2015

BSBI and FSC help young ecologists polish their Orchid ID skills

Phenotypic Fly Orchid variant
Image: N. Jenkinson
I heard recently via the BSBI Twitter account from Nathan Jenkinson and Lindsay Stronge, who are MSc students at the University of Reading studying Species Identification  and Survey Skills. They both hope to begin careers as ecological consultants.

BSBI funding helped them attend a course on Orchid ID and they were keen to tell everyone how much they were enjoying it and what great plants they were seeing. So I invited them to offer a guest blogpost for News & Views readers and here it is. First of all, we hear from Nathan: 

"On 6th June, we travelled to Juniper Hall FSC centre in Surrey for a course on the orchids of South-East England kindly funded by BSBI. Although we study an MSc in Species Identification, we weren’t familiar with the Orchidaceae family until this season.

"As part of our MSc, we work in an ecological consultancy where we spend a lot of time in potential orchid habitats, so wanted to learn how to identify them. We also wanted to see some British species. There are between 50 and 55 species of British orchid depending on which taxonomic revisions you agree with. Guided by Simon Harrap we saw 12 species (and one hybrid) in flower on the chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill, the wet mire areas of Thursley Common and even on roadside verges".

Juniper Hall FSC centre in Surrey
Image: N. Jenkinson
I asked Nathan what his Species of the Weekend was:

"For me, the best find of the weekend was the Fly Orchid. Simon took us to a small Nature Reserve near Juniper Hall where we found about seven Fly Orchids in an area of immature woodland. I hadn’t seen one before and the intricacy of the flower took me aback. The lip looks like a small wasp’s limbs and wings, and the two other petals form convincing antennae.

"The Fly Orchid seems to grow in small openings in a relatively open canopy. As Simon made clear, this habitat is also ideal for a fungus that the Orchid needs to germinate. It is anyone’s guess how this flower became so harmoniously intertwined with a few species of wasp, but the resulting flower is something to behold".

Now Lindsay offers her account of the weekend and her favourite species:

Bird's-nest Orchid
Image: N. Jenkinson
"The Bird’s Nest Orchid is an unusual plant. It doesn’t photosynthesise and therefore has no need for the chlorophyll that makes most other plants green. It parasitises the roots of trees and is usually found growing under beech trees.

"We found some specimens that were dead and some that were freshly blooming. But to the untrained eye, there wasn’t much difference between them. Simon pointed out that the living plant had a fresher, more succulent texture and that they had yellow pollinia. Orchids do not produce loose pollen; instead, it is all contained in a sack called a pollinium. The entire sack sticks to the pollinating insect.

"There was some debate about what the scent of the Bird’s Nest Orchid resembled – to me they were reminiscent of lilies. Finding this unconventional but beautiful species was the highlight of the weekend for me.

"Simon gave two informative lectures where he explained the complex germination processes of orchids. Their seeds contain no nutrition, so in order to germinate and grow they parasitise soil fungi (often particular species). Ecologists don’t currently understand this area very well, but are using DNA techniques to identify the fungi species involved.

The view from Box Hill
Image: N. Jenkinson
"Simon also discussed the conservation of Orchids in the UK. Some species, such as the Common Spotted Orchid, are relatively widespread throughout the UK, whereas others, such as the Ladies Slipper Orchid, have only one genetically pure individual remaining. 

"Conservationists are trying to germinate and plant individuals to ensure the species persists. Other species in the UK, such as the Lizard Orchid, are at the edge of their climatic tolerance and were probably never here in great numbers.

"We took a lot away from our weekend at Juniper Hall, and better understand a family of plants we knew little about. Simon was an inspiring tutor, and we would highly recommend the course to anyone who wants to learn more about orchids in South-East England. The FSC run the course on an annual basis, so if you’re interested have a look at their website for more details.

"Thanks for taking the time to read about our experience, and again thank you to the BSBI for providing us with this opportunity".

Thanks to Nathan and Lindsay for this report - read more here about how BSBI helps young botanists improve their plant ID skills and there's another example here. If you want to support this or any other aspect of our work, and are not yet a member of BSBI, please take a look here. Anyone wishing to make a donation towards our training, outreach and research programmes and our support system for botanists at all skill levels can find out how on this page.