One of gardening’s biggest thrills is when this easy to grow hardy orchid spontaneously appears in a wild part of your garden. I you are a digger and always scratching the soil it will not be you.
|Peter Williams found this growing amongst weeds
Reward for the mycorrhizal fungus will be a lifelong partnership when sugars from the orchid’s photosynthesis pay back the loan.
Such rare happy accidents are more likely to happen to you if you or a near neighbour already grow this plant. Life is never fair.
The good news is that if you purchase a plant from a nurseryman or have the good fortune to have a friend who will give you division it thrives in most soils throughout the UK and is relatively easy for a good gardener to grow. A small flowering plant will cost a tenner or more. Say it doubles or even trebles up by natural division each year and every third year you separate the pieces, then in a decade's time you will be in clover. After several years more you will start getting lovely surprises.
Nature does it all so much better and on suitable but unfortunately uncommon disturbed natural or manmade sites, fine stands of wild orchids can arise in just a few years. If you find any such places do keep the secret. Coincidentally when I wrote this, outside my holiday home at Hunmanby gap in eroded cliff two metres up from the beach I spied three dactylorhiza nestling amongst nettles in the crumbling soil.
|This self sown dactylorhiza chivvies up to my chives
They are slow but easy, are tolerant of a wide range of soils and varying pH. The common species are totally hardy although this might not be true of all sixty of the European native species. They like moist soil although this is not completely essential. They will stand poor drainage. Some of my own grow adjacent to my pond but are not in the bog.
My friend Peter grows them within and at the edge of his woodland. Some of mine are in a full open sunny position. Standard advice that shade tolerant plants sometimes need moister conditions when grown in full sun holds.
Dactylorhiza often do well snuggling close to plants that provide a thin canopy. This does not mean that they should be near aggressive herbaceous plants that will outgrow them. It might be safer to give them their own space.
|Full sun but moist soil next to my pond
My personal attitude to their maintenance is to leave them alone. I don’t knowingly use fertiliser nor do I water established plants or top dress with compost. This does not mean they might not sometimes be better with the help of these crutches.
Only divide them if you wish to propagate more. Maximum increase will be if they are carefully forked out, teased apart and initially potted in good soil or potting compost. It is easier to manage delicate new plants when some level of protection can be given in such as an unheated greenhouse during the first few months.
Such protection is not completely essential. Most of my own dactyorhiza were propagated by nicking out a piece at the margin of an otherwise undisturbed clump and directly replanting into the ground.
|Peter forked out the complete clump in March
|He separated single young crowns from the tangle of old roots and potted them up into compost
|....and planted them two months later before they soon flowered in the same season
Standard advice is that dactylorhiza should be propagated when dormant. This might be at the very end of its season in Autumn. Perhaps better is to divide them in Spring immediately new shoots start to appear. I suspect your window of opportunity at this time lasts several weeks.
Don’t expect to divide your clumps more than every three years.
Dactylorhiza in my life
1. My first experience with this plant was in my alkaline medium/heavy loam in Bolton Percy. It was at the bottom of my garden on a piece of rough land we had purchased to extend our site. Planted on a slightly raised area above a depression that flooded in Winter it remained for several years unloved together with other ‘alpines’ I had purchased. By the time I had my very first garden open day ten years later it had made a rather large clump. I noticed a gentleman give it particular attention. I think he was a nurseryman. I noticed the next morning it was gone.
2. Several years after spraying off the weeds in Bolton Percy cemetery I noticed a dactylorhiza had emerged in a dry sheltered corner next to a path. After this first establishment over a year or two it did not increase further for perhaps fifteen years. I should of course have moved it to a more favourable site but somehow never got round to do so and it did not seem right. It was a talking point for my visiting parties. By the time I left Bolton Percy the site had deteriorated due to growth of adjacent woody vegetation. Like grandfather’s clock it stopped when I left.
|This dactylorhiza arose spontaneously
|This year Peter has given me two more
It was to be that dreadful 2010 Winter when for several weeks temperatures stayed down at minus 20 degrees centigrade. It was as cold or even colder in my greenhouse than outside. Plant roots in pots are much colder than those left in the ground. All my young propagules died. If only I had left them outside in the soil. Peter Williams who has provided most of today’s pictures has just given me a new one.
4. When I first met Brenda she had been helping her son in his lovely Cheshire garden. It was very moist and bordered a ‘mear’. (That’s Cheshire for you). Previously planted by a very fine gardener Brenda was weeding to slow the garden’s steep decline. There were these lovely plants with spotted leaves. Brenda has a good eye for a nice plant. She brought some back for me. I think of it it as her dowry. Twenty years later they thrive in a sunny position next to our ponds.
5. My latest adventure with dactylorhiza I described in my recent post about wild flowers in Filey. Peter Williams volunteered to photograph three scruffy dactyorhiza I had discovered in crumbling cliff very close to the sea near our holiday home. I related his frenzy of activity as he photographed wild flowers for the rest of the day! That afternoon we walked up on Filey Brig and gingerly peered over the high unsafe dangerous grassy edge as you walk towards Scarborough. In the frequently crumbled steep bank there were tens of thousands of orchids.
|It's a long way down and very dangerous but the orchids are a beautiful sight
|We also found a bee orchid
|As I have said before, Peter was in clover
Let it seed
|Give it another month