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Painstaking search for rare orchid

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Much of our knowledge about the countryside can be attributed to the painstaking efforts of amateur naturalists. Their observations, sketches and reports, often made over many years, formed the basis of many of our learned societies, nature trusts and conservation bodies.

The annual report from one such organisation, the Herefordshire Nature Trust, recently recorded the work of Mark Jannink, an amateur botanist from Malvern in Worcestershire, and his search for what has been called Britain’s rarest plant, the ghost orchid, Epipogium aphyllum.

Epipogium aphyllum is a saprophyte. It has no leaves or chlorophyll and can exist for years entirely underground while relying on a fungal partner to obtain its nutrients. According to the field guides, a single flower on a stem a few centimetres tall may spontaneously appear in the leaf litter of a woodland floor any time between May and October.

The plant had not been sighted in Britain for 23 years and was considered critically endangered if not extinct in the UK. However, it is known to flower spasmodically across Central Europe, where hot summers usually follow bitter winters, and Jannink wondered whether flowering was triggered by extremes of temperature.

He investigated local weather patterns and checked previously recorded flowerings back to the 1850s. There were few such records but, as we had been promised a “barbecue summer” last year (2009) after a cold winter, he began his search.

The promised warm weather finally arrived in September and on the 20th of that month Jannink finally found his flower. The site has been kept secret but is said to be in a small oak and hazel wood somewhere in Herefordshire. Jannink is recorded as saying, somewhat mildly perhaps, “Hello you — so there you are!” when his search was finally over.

Jannink monitored the site over the following days until on his last visit he found the stem had been eaten through, probably by slugs. The remains were collected and dried and have been deposited, with his photographs of the plant, at the National Museum of Wales.

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