Sunday 20 August 2017

If you are very lucky dactylorhiza orchids might naturalise in your garden

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
You need to be very observant as like most orchids it initially forms a mycorrhizal association with a fungus when the tiny-tiny seed receives nourishment from a fungal benefactor for a very long time below ground before it emerges. You will only find it when it first flowers and this will be in curious moist places such as under a light plant canopy, in your lawn or in bare moss or liverwort encrusted ground.
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
Optimists and very patient people amongst you might attempt to grow dactylorhiza seed from a seedsman. It might take a lifetime to realise that you have failed. It is beyond the scope of my article to speculate how the experts do it but it might involve using compost with soil that has previously grown dactylorhiza plants. Don’t waste your money buying trendy mycorrhiza in a packet. 

Growing dactylorhiza

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.

Full sun but moist soil next to my pond
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.
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.

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
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.
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.

This  dactylorhiza arose spontaneously
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 year Peter has given me two more
3. I splashed out on a wonderful purple Madeiran Dactylorhiza foliosa and planted it in a moist organic rich part-shaded corner of my acid sandy Seaton Ross soil. It increased in size for a year or two before I raised the courage to divide it in September. Instead of my normal practice when dividing such perennials of chopping them up and immediately replanting  I decided to give this valuable plant special attention. I carefully divided it and potted it up to give it the advantage of Winter protection in my unheated greenhouse.
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.

It's a long way down and very dangerous but the orchids are a beautiful sight
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.

We also found a bee orchid
As I have said before, Peter was in clover
Let it seed

Give it another month
This picture is a late addition to this post and is an effort to be consistent with my title of naturalising from seed. Taken at the end of August it is still too early to cut the plant back if it is to release tens of thousands of airborne seeds


  1. Lovely aren't they? We saw lots ar Flamborough

  2. It does seem strange that something so special is also so adaptable and easy going! Could that mean that it's the fungi rather than the orchid that is the rarer creature? I'm very lucky as I have naturally occurring common spotted and autumn ladies tresses in my garden. The latter is the tiniest thing, and must have been surviving without flowering for decades due to mowing. It only showed up because I'm a bit lazy :-)

    1. Lucky you Sarah. Your laziness and concern for nature is what helps you to be a good gardener.
      I think the fungi are not the limiting factor. It is perhaps more over vigorous weed and intensive land management

  3. Lovely plants and as you say relatively easy to grow to most peoples' surprise, unfortunately I have never grown them although in the last few years I have been on the brink of obtaining some. A few years ago a helleborine popped up between two pieces of rock on the edge of my "woodland" I tentatively identified this rather nondescript plant as the Broad Leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine)it flowered and then disappeared never to be seen again. How it arrived I do not know but I was really pleased that it had paid me a visit.

    1. What a thrill and what a shame.
      A friend gave me a couple three years ago - one survives

  4. I have already got dactylorhiza which I grow in a pot but I have just purchased 3 plant's for my daughter's and I want to pot them into slightly bigger pots but I can't remember which compost I used , I wondered if it was ericasious?


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...