Friday 15 January 2021

Now is the time to start looking for orchids: interview with Sean Cole

In September last year, we were delighted to tell you about a new addition to the bookshelves of orchid-lovers across Britain and Ireland. Britain’s Orchids, written by Sean Cole and Mike Waller, published by Princeton University Press/ WildGuides, and featuring BSBI distribution maps, has been selling steadily and the book has attracted very favourable reviews. So you may be wondering why on earth, having interviewed Mike last autumn, I’m now back interviewing Sean! 

Well, you may be thinking of a field guide to orchids as something that you take down from the bookshelves in late spring just as the Early Purple Orchids come into flower, and put away again a few months later just as the Autumn Lady’s-tresses go to seed. But you’d be wrong, as many midwinter plant-hunters have been discovering recently! Before Sean explains why, I asked him to tell us if there is one orchid in particular that he’d like to see this year. 

SC: Well, as regular readers of this blog will probably know from our previous chat in 2014, when my Ghost Orchid paper was published in New Journal of Botany, that it is the only species I’ve yet to see in Britain or Ireland, so until that day, it is always that one! But more realistically, Covid allowing, I am planning trips to Donegal and the Western Isles, two absolutely stunning orchid locations. 

Ghost Orchid at Marlow 1953
Image courtesy of
National Museum, Wales

LM: Ah, the entry in Britain’s Orchids for the Ghost Orchid always gives me a lump in the throat! It shows the BSBI distribution map with one solitary post-2000 dot showing where the Ghost was last recorded, in 2009, and those photos from Buckinghamshire where a few plants were seen in the 1980s… I know you’ve seen the Ghost on the Continent but not (yet) in Britain – maybe 2021 will be the year?

SC: Every year I say that, in a demonstration of hope overcoming experience, but last autumn, and this winter so far, have provided favourable conditions for an appearance of Ghost this year – in the west at least. We have had seemingly continual rain throughout the autumn and winter (after record flooding back in March 2020), and then, from Boxing Day, a hard freeze, which only ended this week. We now have saturated ground. If only we can have rain throughout March and April, then again from August to October, and we might really be talking turkey! I appreciate that if it happens, I may not be very popular for wishing it! 

LM: Blimey Sean that doesn’t sound like much fun for plant hunters! Why would that kind of weather be good for the Ghost? 

SC: There are two things the Ghost likes the most – permanently wet soil and no trampling. Research has proven that heavy footfall ruins populations, as the stolons and underground parts are present so close to the surface, and footfall destroys them in soft soil. So the likelihood is that even if the impossible happens, it won’t be a public event. 

Sean finds and photographs his quarry!
Image M. Waller

LM Ok so that’s for later in the year, weather permitting, but right now – and this is why we are talking today Sean – in the past few weeks people have been posting photos of what they think are orchid rosettes on social media. Many of the c2,000 people who took part in the BSBI New Year Plant Hunt, where people look for plants in bloom at midwinter, also emailed us to enquire if the rosettes they noticed while scanning lawns and road verges might be Bee Orchids. Could your book help them or will they have to wait for the flowers to appear? 

SC: It’s great to see people searching out rosettes as well as flowering examples. It’s pretty much a  new discipline, probably begun by Mike when he wrote the British orchids vegetative ID guide for the NHM back in 2016, building on the approach taken by John Poland’s Vegetative Key to the British Flora. Our intention was always to make Britain’s Orchids a book that you could use all year round, and the rosette section was a key part of that.

Bee orchid rosette, Jan 2021, NHM garden
Image: S Cole
If you think about it, this is the time of year that orchids are easiest to spot, because there is barely any surrounding vegetation to hide them. Luckily, Bee Orchids often grow close to habitation – roadside verges, traffic islands, village greens, sports pitches, industrial estates and gardens - as well as old gravel pits and other man-made habitats. They don’t like competition, so they grow where the ground is bare or the surrounding vegetation doesn't compete.

Finding them in winter can be vital to their survival too: if you know they are present in an area that usually gets mown later on in the year then you can take action promptly, engage landowners, contractors and locals to protect them – and everything else that grows alongside - as well as the invertebrates that rely on the plants.

LM: Good advice Sean and here's the tweet you spotted from one happy person who found Bee Orchid rosettes in their garden the other day! So which other orchid rosettes should people be looking for in the next few months? And which habitats and locations should they be looking in?  

Burnt Orchid
Image: M. Waller
SC: Fifteen of our native species can be found during January, with the most obvious being Bee, Early Purple, Pyramidal and Green-winged. But if you are able to visit sites with other Ophrys or Orchis species, they are around too. You could even set yourself the trickiest challenge of all and try to find an overwintering Burnt Orchid!!

LM: If anyone can find an over-wintering Burnt Orchid I’d like to hear about it! So once orchids start coming into bud – I see there are several pages in the book showing what those buds will look like – could you give us an idea of an orchid hunter’s calendar and itinerary through the year? 

SC: Given the uncertainty around travel at the moment, I’d suggest that people stay local and look for new places in their area. The winter rosettes are soon joined by the annual ones, with my local Common Spotted Orchid rosettes first appearing at the end of February last year. I’ve just found out about a site less than a mile from my house with 200 Southern Marsh Orchids, and I’ve lived here for eight years! So there is always something to discover. Look for orchid places and visit at a time of year you wouldn’t usually go – there could be some real surprises. 

LM: Good advice, an opportunity to hunt for orchid sites while staying safe under lockdown. There’s a question that I asked Mike and I’d like to ask you too: You must have visited a lot of locations across Britain and Ireland in the course of your research. Are there any that particularly stand out in your memory? 

SC: For me it is wider areas rather than specific sites (although I have a real soft spot for the Oxfordshire Military Orchid site). County Donegal is so beautiful and full of orchids, it is truly magical. A little-known fact is, it has more species than anywhere else in Ireland. Also, the Scottish machair is mind-blowingly stunning – north west mainland and the Hebrides - full of wildlife, especially orchids of course. 

Dune Helleborine in a
Harrogate planter (close-up)
Image: K. Walker
LM: Machair is one of my favourite habitats too! When I interviewed Mike, he also said that while the two of you worked together on many of the sections, you were sole author on the Identifying Epipactis (helleborines) section. It has always fascinated me how Broad-leaved helleborines can grow quite happily in some very urban environments. I’ve seen them in car parks in Glasgow Southside, looking quite happy next to cigarette ends and dog poo – not where you might expect to see orchids! How is it that they can survive so happily in such unexpected places? 

SC: One of my favourite photos in Britain’s Orchids is Isabel Hardman’s photo of a Broad-leaved Helleborine growing out of a drain cover in an urban Glasgow street. This species can grow in almost any soil type, although it prefers calcareous substrates, and it is also tolerant of almost any light or shade conditions. Similarly, the soil doesn’t have to be particularly wet or dry. Whilst little is known about its mycorrhizal host partners, the likelihood is that it uses species that are common and widespread. It is pollinated primarily by common wasps, and has a high pollination success. This has caused problems in places where it has been introduced out of its normal range, as it can out-compete native species. 

LM: I love that there’s still so much to discover about our wild plants! And Dune Helleborines – they seem to be turning up in places that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered to be dunes! How come? 

The Harrogate planter where
Dune Helleborines grow
Image: K. Walker
SC: Dune Helleborine is a story unfolding as we watch, and we have much to learn about it. Part of its range expansion is undoubtedly due to increased awareness of its identification – it is a subtle species that looks ostensibly like Broad-leaved Helleborine. But it is spreading into other habitats, primarily man-made ones such as reclaimed or disused gravel pits and spoil heaps. Records on roadside verges, or like Kevin Walker’s planters in urban Harrogate where they presumably arise from seed in soil placed in these locations. Like Broad-Leaved Helleborine, Dune Helleborine isn’t massively fussy about soil conditions, and it also chooses dual pollination methods, so if insects aren’t present, it will self-pollinate – again giving high rate of seed set. One curious thing about this species is that it can flower when very small (i.e. when it’s young) so I wonder if this means populations can get going much more quickly? 

Spread of rosette images from Britain's Orchids

LM: Fascinating stuff! So the moral seems to be that wherever you are and whatever time of year it is, you may find orchids if you just keep your eyes peeled and arm yourself with a suitable book! Sean, is this a good time to remind people of where they can buy a copy of Britain’s Orchids, how much it costs, how many pages, how many colour photos…. Go on, you’ve got five minutes to do the sales pitch! 

SC: The best sales pitch for a book is its readers’ reviews, and so far they have all been very positive. The main reason people seem to like it is that the illustrations by Sarah Stribbling are so stunning; we show all the variation within all the species, side-by-side, we’ve included all the hybrids with their parents on either side, and we show orchids at all stages of development – so if you get to a site too early or late, you can still identify what you see. All in a mere 286 pages and for less than £20! Summerfield Books are still cheapest I believe, but all the natural history booksellers have it.

Ghost Orchid photographed
in beech wood in Germany
Image: S Cole

One recent review pointed out that there are so many orchid books already available, and therefore what was the point of another one coming out. We were well aware of the plethora of existing literature, much of it very good, so knew we had to produce something unique, beautiful and eminently useful, otherwise nobody would bother. The reviewer concluded we had, and that Britain’s Orchids was a necessary addition to the subject, so that was a relief! 

LM: Phew! But to be even-handed, I’ll just remind readers that the Orchid ID page on the BSBI website has links to some free ID tips and resources as well as suggestions of some of the other orchid books on the market. If you have questions about orchids, you can contact both Mike and Sean via social media and share your orchid photos with them. You can also follow the Britain’s Orchids Twitter account or email them direct at

Many thanks for talking to me Sean and will you promise me something please? If one day you find a Ghost Orchid in Britain, will you come back and tell us all about it? 

SC: Believe me, I will be telling EVERYONE about that!! But you might have to come to me, as I may be in an old folks’ home by then.

LM: Deal! 

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