The orchids that people most often encounter in the UK are those gracing the shelves of supermarkets and garden centres – bold, brightly coloured specimens such as Phalaenopsis, which are native to South Asia but are now extremely popular in British homes.

Although you might not find anything quite as showy as the tropical species we grow as house plants, you might be surprised to learn that you can discover many different orchids in the British countryside too...

A total of 52 different species are native to the UK, and almost 30 of these have been recorded in Bedfordshire. One of these – the bee orchid - has even been crowned the county’s official flower.

As the name suggests, part of the flower (the lip) of this stunning species resembles a bee. The function of this mimicry – which even extends to the scent of the flower - is to tempt a male bee to ‘mate’ with it, accumulating pollen in the process, which is then transferred when it visits another bee orchid.

IMAGE: Bee orchid, Tony Crofts

However, the strategy is ineffective here in the UK as the bee species it is designed to attract does not live here. As such, bee orchids in this country self-pollinate in order to reproduce.

This exotic-looking species can be found in many different places – in grasslands, woods, road verges and railway embankments. Occasionally they’ve even been known to pop up in gardens. Peak flowering time is June.

Among the first to orchids to flower are the early-purples around April. Found in a variety of habitats including grassland, woodland and road verges, the early purple orchid is larger than the bee orchid, growing to around 40cm in height. The deep magenta flowers are arranged in a cluster of up to 50 around the stem, and the glossy leaves are covered in dark purple blotches.

Another distinguishable feature of the early purple orchid is its scent. When they first appear, the flowers give off a sweet fragrance, but after fertilisation the scent is more akin to urine! Far more pleasant to the nostrils is the chalk fragrant orchid, a species which has a sweet vanilla scent that intensifies towards dusk in order to attract night-flying moths.

Chalk fragrant orchids begin flowering around mid-May, and normally grow to around 40cm. Up to 200 pinky-purple flowers form in a cylinder shape around the stem.

IMAGE: Common spotted orchid, Mark King

As the season progresses our most widespread orchid, the common spotted, starts to bloom. Easier to find than most other species, you can see it flowering in many different places - on grasslands, in woodlands, roadside verges, hedgerows, old quarries and marshes - between May and August.

The flowers are arranged in tight clusters and come in a range of colours from white to pink and through to magenta. All have distinctive darker purple markings on their three-lobed lips and the leaves are also spotted with purple.

Although relatively common – for an orchid at least – finding one of these flowers is still a magical experience. Look closely and you can’t help but be won over by their beauty.

Not all British orchids have colourful, exquisite flowers though.

One very interesting exception is the bird’s nest orchid – an extremely rare species that grows in shady woodland. This orchid does not use sunlight to produce energy through photosynthesis as it lacks chlorophyll – the substance that makes our plants green. Instead it relies on its host for nutrients, living parasitically on the roots of trees. Food is stored in the tangle of roots that gives the plant its name. The flower of this orchid is very distinctive – a rather sickly-looking beige due to the lack of chlorophyll.

Another of the less showy varieties of orchid – which is also much more widespread– is the common twayblade. It grows in woods, grassy places and scrubland, but is sometimes overlooked because of its rather inconspicuous green and yellow flowers. Despite growing up to 75cm in height, this orchid is sometimes missed because it blends in so well to its surroundings.

Do let us know about any orchids you find while out exploring the Forest of Marston Vale, and tempting as it may be, please don’t pick the flowers. Orchids look their best out in the wild, and many are legally protected so you could be breaking the law.

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