It’s a Friday, and half a dozen retirees are scouring the ground for flowers. We’re on chalk grassland in Noar Hill nature reserve in Hampshire. Medieval chalk extraction has created small artificial valleys in this scrubby 20-hectare (50-acre) landscape perched above farmland. It is home to a jungle of flowers, including an abundance of oxeye daisies and clovers. But today we’re hunting for a rarer inhabitant: the orchid.
Leif Bersweden, a 28-year-old botanist who has been obsessed with orchids since the age of 12, immediately spots a frog orchid, a little greenish plant about 10cm tall. Its flowers would only look like frogs to someone on hallucinogens.
Orchid hunters are more interested in rarity than beauty. Many of the enthusiasts we meet have found the pyramidal orchid, common spotted orchid and musk orchid (this is one of the best sites in the country to see the latter) but none has seen the frog orchid. They get down on their hands and knees to study the specimen. In some cases, both partners have DSLR cameras, presumably because they don’t trust their spouse to get the money shot. There is discussion about “ticking it off our list”.
Bersweden, the author of Where the Wildflowers Grow, a new book about travelling around the UK looking and learning about flowers, encourages people to spend quality time with them. He says he can stay for an hour with a special orchid if no one is waiting for him. “It might sound a bit weird but I like to imagine what life is like for them. If you’re the size of a fly, then this must be what a forest looks like,” he says.
“It’s an honour to see them – so few people get the chance. Just to meet these things and engage with them.”
For Bersweden, who has just completed a PhD in genetics at Kew Gardens, botanising is the art of wandering around and noticing plants, whether out walking the dog or waiting for a bus.
The presence of orchids in this landscape tells us it is in good condition. Orchids shouldn’t be as rare as they are – a combination of habitat destruction, pollution and plant theft is driving their decline. Chalk grasslands are particularly good for orchids because, counterintuitively, they have such poor soils that there is less competition from fast-growing grasses. This means more delicate flowers can thrive.
“They’re like stroppy teenagers. They go off in a huff unless it’s perfect,” says Bersweden.
The challenge of growing – and finding orchids – requires expertise. Orchidelirium describes a condition where people have literally been driven mad by the need to find and cultivate these flowers, which are reliant on complex relationships with certain fungi.
As well as sending humans insane, they taunt insects too. A fly orchid found in this reserve is one of four varieties in the UK that trick insects into pollinating them. The flowers look like female digger wasps, and are so carefully crafted they even have a blue sheen to imitate the light that reflects off the insect’s back.
They flower from mid May to early June – a period when lustful males have emerged but there are no females around yet. The fly orchid produces a pheromone, which is almost identical to the mating pheromones released by the female wasp. This attracts male wasps looking to mate, successfully pollinating the flower in the process. The deception works until the females emerge.
“The entire fraud is masterminded by a plant – I love it when flowers can get one over on animals,” says Bersweden, who believes people often disregard plants because they don’t move very quickly.
Despite dividing up and methodically covering the entire reserve for more than an hour, we fail to find this mystical plant. Bersweden once spent more than six hours looking for a fen orchid in sand dunes in south Wales, only to discover its flowers had been eaten by a rabbit. He says the possibility of not finding the treasure is what makes the activity so addictive.
This landscape is laced with complex forms of connection that we’re only beginning to properly understand. Bersweden is able to help me grasp some of these – namely, the relationship between orchids and fungi. He explains that most plants send off their seeds packed with food. Orchids don’t do this – their seeds are specks of dust – so they have to make friends with a fungus, which then gives nutrients to the orchid. It’s not clear what the fungus gets in return for this charity.
When growing up, Bersweden loved Pokémon, and saw discovering nature as a real-life version of the video game. Both involve finding and making lists of cool creatures adapted to different environments. Today, he believes anyone who goes out with the intention of learning about wild plants is a botanist.
But he appreciates that most people – especially those of his age – don’t share this passion. Nearly half of children in the UK do not know what blackberries, bluebells or brambles look like, according to a 2019 study. The term “plant blindness” describes our tendency not to notice plants in our environment, yet they are “just as alive and devious and determined and resourceful as animals”, Bersweden writes in his book.
His next book is to be about botany in London, as he tries to make flower-hunting more popular in urban areas. The aim is to tell as many people as possible how wonderful flowers are. “Finding an orchid is pure joy. I’m naturally a shy person, and if I’ve found a certain orchid I will dance on the spot in front of people I’ve never met before. That is not something that would ever happen otherwise,” he says.
Top tips for flower hunting
Start locally. Nature reserves can sometimes be overwhelming, so begin on your doorstep, learning new species as you go. You can start at any time of year – make it winter, and you’ll have a good basic knowledge in time for spring blooms.
Go out walking with people who know more about plants than you do.
Don’t be a flower snob. Being stuck in traffic jams, on the train, or waiting for a bus are all great moments to spot flowers around you.
Join groups on social media. Take photos of flowers and upload them to communities of enthusiastic botanists who can help identify them. Wildflower hour could be a good place to start.
Join a botanical society. Look on their website to find who will know most about the plants near you.
If you really get into it, you may want to get a 10x magnifying hand lens so you can see smaller details. They can be bought for about £10 online.
Where the Wildflowers Grow by Leif Bersweden is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £20.00)
July 16, 2022 at 12:37PM Phoebe Weston