Orchids of the Quantocks

Across the UK, it’s the landscapes with calcareous, chalky soils that have the reputation for supporting the greatest diversity of orchids, but our sandy, slightly acidic soils are just right for several type of orchid.

Despite so many very dry weeks recently there have been some tremendous displays of Dactylorhiza orchids around the lower grassy parts of Ramscombe/Great Wood, in grassland areas at Fyne Court, in hay meadows near Aisholt and perhaps most spectacularly on Broomfield Hill  where several thousand Heath Spotted Orchids Dactylorhiza maculata have been scattered across much of the open grassland that surrounds the trig point on the highest part of the hill.  The excellent management of the grassland there by the National Trust has resulted in a huge boost for local biodiversity with many plants other than orchids also flowering well, and in turn supporting lots of invertebrates including butterflies and moths. The management at Broomfield Hill could well stand as an example for best practice for other grasslands across the Quantocks. 

But when it comes to identifying exactly what plant you have found, the Dactylorhiza group of orchids are not easy to deal with! Despite the field guides illustrating Common Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii – Heath Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza maculata – Early Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata and Southern Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa as separate species, the reality on the ground is often very different. The Orchid family is very fluid, and evolving, with many “species” not yet genetically distinct from each other.

All the above four Dactylorhiza orchids can, and do hybridize with each other giving rise to an orchid that just doesn’t fit the illustration on the page in your field guide. Another point to remember is that the Early Marsh Orchid and Southern Marsh Orchid are most likely to be found in wet boggy ground, but they may also both be found growing in ground that certainly isn’t marshy, and may not, apparently, be at all damp.

The answer to this species identification conundrum, really, is just to enjoy whatever you have found. It’s just us humans who like to identify things very precisely, the orchids are very happy to hybridize amongst themselves.

Nigel Phillips June 2023