Friday, 22 February 2013

Exciting New Lichens in Sussex – our Sequal

The Teloschistes chrysophthalmus habitat in Sussex weald
The morning was one of the brightest spring days of the year so far. Since January 3rd, my wife Amanda has been taking a photograph of exactly the same view of a field near where we live. Since being shown Teloschistes chrysophthalmus just north of Brighton, we have been keeping our eyes open for it. This morning, having taken her photograph, Amanda was struck by the assemblage of lichens, including the golden Xanthoria species that seem to be associated with Teloschistes chrysophthalmus  growing on a blackthorn bush nearby. She went over to give the bush a casual look.

After perhaps half a minute, the air went blue.

“Sod it!” She cried.

“What’s the matter.” I replied, furrowing my brow in concern.

“Come and see!” she said.

“I’m not sure I want to see something that’s not too pleasant,” I added.

The twig with Teloschistes chrysophthalmus
“You’ll like this,” she replied enthusiastically. I walked over to where she was standing, and she pointed to a very small, very fertile orange coloured lichen. Indeed, the fruits seemed to be raised on definite branches, and I could see what I thought were eye-lash like cilia surrounding the fruit. It looked very promising. Amanda dashed inside to get my hand lens and camera. Moments later, I was able to confirm our suspicions with my hand lens.

The new Teloschistes chrysophthalmus

The lichen was very small, but I was in no doubt whatsoever that this was indeed the beautiful Golden-eyed Lichen Teloschistes chrysophthalmus and the second record of it for East Sussex and one of the mounting number of sightings in southern England since October last year.

The Excitement and Mystique of Rare Orchid Hunting

Military Orchid in France 2004
There is something very special to most naturalists about seeing a new species. If that species is rare, then the excitement of seeing it is even greater, especially if there has been a lot of effort and planning involved. In my late teens, I had the very great good fortune of spending my Saturday mornings in the Leicester University Herbarium in the company of Professor Tutin (of the Clapham, Tutin and Warburg Flora). On one occasion, he let slip that the very rare Military Orchid had been found in Suffolk. He gave me rather vague instructions. At the time, I was at school about twenty miles from the site, and during its flowering season at the weekend, I would cycle over to the area. The site is to the north of a roundabout from which roads spread north like the spokes of a bicycle. I first had to try and work out which of the roads was the one Professor Tutin had been referring to. Over perhaps three years, I tried in vain to find the site and it wasn’t until I was at University that a friend who knew the exact locality took me to pay my respects. While I was at school, I was a keen plant collector, and I suspect that had I found the plant, I would have collected a spike for my herbarium; I have to say in retrospect, I am somewhat relieved that my youthful hunt did not bear fruit.

A year or two later, I heard the story, possibly apocryphal, of the finding of the Suffolk military orchids. It was said the botanist who found it slipped, and fell into a dell. She knocked her head as she slipped downwards and was at least dazed, or perhaps even momentarily unconscious. When she came round, she found she was surrounded by military orchids in profusion looking like bluebells in woodland, “I must have died,” she said to herself as she began to recover, “Because this must be heaven!”

Military Orchid in France 2004
It had been in the middle of the twentieth century that the military orchid was first found in Buckinghamshire, an event that brought it back from extinction. It was that well-known botanist Ted Lousley who knew where it occurred, and probably had found it. A botanist friend of mine was determined to find it, but Ted Lousley was equally determined to guard the secret of its whereabouts. My friend asked for a clue, and Ted Lousley agreed to let my friend know whether it was to the north or south of a particular main road. About a fortnight later he received a postcard that announced on it, “The Soldiers are alive and well at…….”

Secrecy about the sites of rarities is not always a good idea. There are a large number of people who have a determination to experience the thrill of being in the company of a rare and exotic orchid. Luckily, today few botanists would want to add rare orchid specimens to their private herbaria, and most like to treasure the memory of the experience with a photograph. Policing of fragile sites during the flowering season, and allowing the whereabouts of such sites that can cope to be widely known can be very beneficial for keeping people involved with the natural world. The keen and fanatic orchid hunter is almost certainly going to try every possible way to track down his quarry. Many will travel vast distances to achieve that goal. How much more pleasant it would be for everyone if the site were policed, and the orchid fanatic would not have to suffer that wave of guilt that acting like some international spy would give him. Most are more than prepared to give a generous donation for the privilege of seeing, and photographing a rare orchid.

Lady’s Slipper Orchid in Yorkshire, 1972
It was an episode of the television series Wild Things that stimulated me to write this blog. In the programme, one of the presenters visited a wonderful clump of Lady’s Slipper Orchids that are the progeny from native wild plants. The good news that there are as many as a hundred plants in various secret sites in Britain was mentioned. Whether the plant I experienced back in the early 1970s is still extant, I was unable to confirm.

In my twenties, I was a determined orchid hunter and had replaced any remnant ideas of collecting actual plants with making a series of my own personal photographs. Perhaps the most mystical and prestigious species is the Lady’s Slipper Orchid. My botanical friend knew of its locality, and undertook to give me detailed instructions for finding the site, provided I never let on who it was who gave me the information. He suggested that I contact the then Nature Conservancy Council and tell them I knew where the site was, having visited it in the past, and saying that I would very much like to improve the quality of my photographs. The officer in the Nature Conservancy Council called my bluff, and suggested I meet him at the entrance to the area.

“I’d like you to show me where your plants are,” he said, “After all, your site may not be the same as mine.” As it happens, the site is a good way from the nearest road, and even with my instructions, finding my way there unaided I knew would be demanding, However, I led him to within a few yards of the orchids’ but I couldn’t actually spot them.

“They are around here somewhere,” I muttered somewhat feebly. In fact they really were only a few yards from where I stood, and my companion pointed them out to me.

Lady’s Slipper Orchid in Spanish Pyrenees
Lady’s Slipper Orchid in Spanish Pyrenees
I understand that more recently than at the time of my visit, during the flowering season, a guard sat close by and was camouflaged. The guard allowed people to approach within a few yards of the plants before he actually revealed his presence. The Lady’s Slipper Orchid in Britain became an extreme rarity having suffered acutely from collection by Victorian gardeners. Luckily, some of the plants that were dug up are known to be of wild origin, and these have been used for re-introductions into the wild. Abroad the Lady’s Slipper Orchid is also far from common, however I enjoyed a rare experience when I saw a colony of perhaps a hundred plants on a hillside in the Spanish Pyrenees.

Ghost Orchid in 1972 hand held