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Hole of Horcum 19th May 2003: in search of the Green-winged Orchid

Green-winged orchid

This was a trip organised by Nan Sykes to see if we could find the Green-winged orchid (Orchis morio) which had been recorded here in the mid-1980s. This is a plant that in the late 19th century was common, certainly in the Scarborough area, but the Hole of Horcum is thought to be the only remaining site for it in Ryedale (although there is a record from Appleton-le-Moors from 1983). 9 volunteers turned up for the big hunt, which started at the car park at Saltergate Bank top.

We walked down through heather moorland to the fields along the foot of the woodland in the Hole itself and began a detailed search. We found many interesting plants including heath milkwort in a variety of colours from dark blue through to white, marsh valerian and marsh violets in the marshy flushes which cut across the fields, even Adderstongue (below) which is a curious small fern that looks nothing like a fern...

Adderstongue fern

...but no orchids. Then suddenly the cry went up “I’ve found one! Got it!”. We all rushed over (carefully, in case there were other specimens and we didn’t want to tread on them...) and, sure enough, there were two rather small spikes, one dark like an early purple orchid, the other a pale flesh-pink with a beautiful green-veined hood. A little further on was another spike, with several more in bud close by. With the exception of the pale specimen which showed the green hood very clearly, most of the flowers showed very clear veining in the upper petals and sepals, but this was not really green.

Three colour forms of O. morio growing close together.

Green-winged orchid  Green-winged orchid  Green-winged orchid  
[You can see a bigger version of the pale one by clicking on the picture - 100K]

Then we started spotting more and more spikes: within an area of say 300 by 200 yards there were over 40 spikes, most of them a rich purple very similar to the characteristic colour of early purple orchids, one or two with the reddish tinge of northern marsh orchids, some a little paler, and one a particularly dark, rich purple. At this point the band of happy botanists declared lunch – but not before we had all taken a close look and some photographs!


Green-winged orchid
Green-winged orchid showing the veined sepals. For a more detailed picture click on the image [240K].

Myosotis stoloniferaAfter lunch we decided to carry on and see some of the other unusual plants known to grow in the Hole of Horcum, starting with the pale forget-me-not Myosotis stolonifera [also known as M. brevifolia] (right). This is a tiny plant that grows in water in the small rivulets that coalesce to form Levisham Beck at the bottom of the Hole. It was only just coming into flower, but we did manage to find a couple of plants in bloom, which showed the characteristic small, pale sky-blue petals. Apart from the flowers themselves I did not think this plant resembled a forget-me-not at all, being much more compact and with smaller, more rectangular leaves than any other local species that I have seen.

It is rare in Britain, only growing in upland districts in the north and Scotland.

We then climbed back up the hill towards the road, stopping on the way to admire (and photograph) the dwarf cornel Cornus suecica (left) that grows on the north-facing shoulder (and also on the north-facing slope of the nearby Blakey Knoll). Dwarf CornelThis is a plant that is not uncommon in Scotland, but this is its southern-most outpost in Britain. It is small (only 3" or so tall) and difficult to see as it tends to hide under bracken and bilberry, and the prominent white bracts around the flowers quickly fade to brown. Nan was a little concerned that it seems to be less abundant than in previous years; we wondered whether this was because the slope is no longer grazed which has led to the bilberry growing taller, and also an invasion of small rowan trees. CowberryA little further up the slope was a patch of chickweed wintergreen - unfortunately at this point it was windy and threatening to rain and we have no pictures.

Finally, almost back to the cars, we found a little group of cowberry (right) - not rare but not very common, and not often seen in flower, so this was a nice end to a very successful trip. Many thanks to Nan, and we can happily report that green-winged orchids still thrive in at least one place in our area.

Gill Smith May 2003

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© Ryedale Natural History Society 2003; Pictures © Adrian and Gill Smith 2003