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Slow beginnings for stunning orchid

Mark Heighes Burnt Tip Orchid June 13-5.jpg (Preview)In 2002 Wiltshire people chose the distinctive burnt-tip orchid to be their county flower - and it is easy to see why. This little plant, only about six inches tall, produces a multitude of delicate pinkish-white flowers on its short spike.

When open, the petals display a spattering of reddish-pink spots. When closed the buds form a deep crimson top to the spike, giving rise to the burnt-tip name.

Like all orchids, it relies on a fungus to grow. Its tiny seeds blow like dust in the wind, which spreads them over a wide area; but their size means there is no room for food for the embryo.

To get around the problem the orchid forms an association with a fungus; this is known as mycorrhiza. The fungus provides the embryo with nutrition, allowing it to develop into a tuber with thick roots.

The tuber can grow underground for up to 15 years before it produces its first leafy stem. Even then, it can take several more years before it flowers.

Our chalk downlands are home to this stunning orchid although you might occasionally find them in a meadow. You can see it, often in little clusters, from early May to the end of June. A late flowering subspecies blossoms throughout July - it is taller and its stems produce fewer flowers.

Because the tubers develop so slowly the burnt-tip orchid needs unfertilised, unploughed grassland to grow in – increasingly hard to find in today’s intensively farmed landscape.

Also the turf needs to be grazed if it isn’t to be crowded out by long grasses. However insufficient grazing has led to the loss of this species in sites where it was once commonly known.

The orchid is listed as Endangered in The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain. Despite a decline in its numbers, Wiltshire remains one of the best places in the country to spot them.

You can see them at our Coombe Bissett Down nature reserve along with many other beautiful wildflowers. Or you could try looking for them in your local area and let us know if you find them – you never know, it might be a new location for this plant, which can occasionally pop up in new places. Just remember to stick to footpaths and areas open to the public.

Even if you don’t find the burnt-tip you’re sure to spot other wildlife which you can try to identify and record for us. You can submit records of burnt-tip orchids or other wildlife online.

What other wildlife you can see in Wiltshire at this time of year?

We are running a flowering plant identification event on Sunday July 27 at 10am at Conigre Mead nature reserve in Melksham.

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