Looking after the orchids

Iain Macdonald, SNH’s Biodiversity Strategy Officer, ponders a life-long love of wild orchids.

Lesser butterfly-orchid growing in grassland. © Andy Scobie

Lesser butterfly-orchid growing in grassland. © Andy Scobie

Pot plants require care. I was reminded about that a few days ago when staff from the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh visited our office in Inverness. Laura Gallagher, an expert on horticulture, immediately spotted mealy bugs growing on one of our indoor plants. “Oh dear”.

It is much the same for wild flowers which grow in places looked after by people. Habitats like grassland or heathland. These would, without intervention, likely turn into woodland. Please don’t get me wrong, I love woodland, but sometimes grassland and heathland can also be fantastic for plants. Sometimes people simply want grassland or heathland for practical reasons.

Lesser Butterfly-orchid. © Andy Scobie

Lesser butterfly-orchid. © Andy Scobie

Like a lot of people I have a “soft spot” for orchids, wild orchids, and the wilder the better. I was therefore happy to read a new guidance note for land managers containing tips on how to look after lesser butterfly-orchid, or “LBO” as lazy botanists like to call it. The note is published on the SNH web site and is written by my friends Liz Lavery and Andy Scobie. Liz is a volunteer “Floral Guardian” for Plantlife recording information on LBO across Scotland. Andy used to be the Cairngorms Rare Plants Officer and aside from being a really nice chap also happens to be an orchid expert.

How to look after orchids might seem obvious, but it isn’t. Smallish things can make a difference. When my grandparents were alive they took over a croft full of orchids from a relative. Purple northern-marsh orchid, heath fragrant-orchid and heath spotted-orchid were literally in abundance. There was even LBO, I recall trying to work out if they were lesser or greater butterfly-orchids. There were other flowers too, lots of them, blue devil’s-bit scabious, purple selfheal and bright yellow tormentil. My grandparents changed the grazing regime, lots of sheep all year round. The orchids disappeared along with most of the other flowers.   It was not deliberate on their part, it just happened for practical reasons. The irony was that my grandparents liked wild flowers. Thirty years on, reading the paper by Liz and Andy I wish that I had had access to their guidance note when I was younger. We might not have saved all the flowers, but we might have saved a lot.  The pictures of lesser and greater butterfly-orchid in the guidance note would also have helped me separate the two! “Oh dear” indeed.

Find out about the lesser butterfly-orchid and others on the Plantlife website.

Discover more about ideal habitats for orchids on the SNH lowland grasslands web page.

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