15 June 2001

GARDEN ORCHIDS ARE A RARE TREAT

There is something special about native orchids

but, as Tom Montgomery found, some can now

be enjoyed in the garden as well as in the wild

THE beautiful but rare Ladys Slipper orchid can be found growing on Norman Haywoods 3.23ha (8 acre) smallholding in rural Dorset. A few years ago there was only one plant in the whole country but now, thanks to people like Norman, you can grow it in your garden along with dozens of other British orchids.

Nine years ago Norman set up a nursery specialising in native species of these exotic-sounding blooms. He grows thousands of plants a year covering most of the range, some 50 different types of species and hybrids.

There is the familiar common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) often seen in fields and verges when out walking; the early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) which flowers with the bluebells in woodlands; the Marsh Helleborine (Epipactis palustris), which is not as common as it was 50 years ago but which is easy to grow, and the rare Early Spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes). The seed of this was carried over from Europe and germinated on the Dorset coast west of Swanage. Norman has obtained a quantity from the Continent and hopes to have plants for sale in a few years.

&#42 Conservation

People buy orchids from Norman for a number of reasons. To grow for interest in their own gardens, to photograph the highly specialised and often striking flowers and, increasingly, for conservation. He supplies naturalist trusts with wild orchids for stocking reserves.

A woodland adjoining his farm has a number of species of wild orchids which he helps to protect. They include the Violet Helleborine, now quite rare, whose nectar contains a yeast which makes wasps drunk.

Native orchid numbers have been reduced over the years, initially by collectors and latterly through the destruction or alteration of their habitat. At least one, Summer Ladys Tresses, that grew in the New Forest area, is now virtually extinct. The Countryside Steward-ship Scheme, which introduced grazing management and scrub control, has helped pull the still threatened Late Spider orchid back from the brink on the downlands of Kent.

The classic example of orchid destruction and subsequent regeneration is the Ladys Slipper orchid which was dug up freely by collectors and gardeners in the Yorks Dales until only a single specimen survived. Conservation and rapid strides in test tube propagation of the dust-fine seeds means that Ladys Slipper plants, and other native orchids, can be produced readily in the laboratory, according to English Nature. Orchids are now being reintroduced back into the countryside but it is still a challenge to establish them with their fungal "partner" whose presence is necessary for their survival.

Norman introduces the fungus at the propagation stage and it comes with the plant. He cleans and sterilises the seed and sows in flasks in the dark where it remains for a year. The tiny plants are then grown on in trays of compost in polytunnels. He also propagates orchids vegetatively.

Customers receive their orders bare rooted, wrapped in damp moss, boxed, and labelled, with instructions, by first-class post. They can be planted out next day.

From flask to flowering takes about four years for the fastest-growing orchids. "They are fairly easy to grow, some people now have big clumps of them in their gardens. We are also hybridising them," said Norman. Not all-native orchids are suitable for domestic plots. The Birds Nest Orchid, a withered looking specimen which takes its name from its root system, is only at home in woodlands.

&#42 Native types

Norman became interested in orchids at a tender age, growing up near Box Hill, Dorking in Surrey – a good area for studying them. Later he grew tropical orchids before developing and building his laboratory for cultivating native types helped by the Sainsbury Orchid Foundation at Kew and members of the British Orchid Growers Association.

He is founder and honorary vice-president of the Hardy Orchid Society which has over 500 members.

All orchids growing wild in Britain are now protected by the Countryside and Wildlife Act.

Normans nursery, called Hardy Orchids, is at New Gate Farm, Stour Provost, Dorset SP8 5LT. Tel: 01747 838368.Visitors only by appointment.

Send two first class stamps for a catalogue or visit the web-site: www.hardyorchids.supanet.com Orders are dispatched in autumn and spring.

Top: Marsh Helleborine.

Above: Early marsh orchid.

Right: Early purple orchid.