British Wildlife of the Week
Lady’s Slipper Orchid
During the Victorian Era, there was a botanical equivalent of ‘gold fever’. Wealthy collectors sent explorers to all corners of the world to discover new, exquisite types of orchid. The finest specimens could fetch very high prices indeed, and explorers risked their lives just to find them, travelling through dangerous, unmapped territory in search of these beautiful, delicate flowers.
This orchid hunting craze became known as ‘orchidelirium’. But this obsession, this madness, drove the decline of many orchid species, not only those growing in far-flung locales, but also here in the UK. Take, for example, the lady’s slipper orchid Cypripedium calceolus. The largest orchid in Europe, the lady’s slipper was much-loved among orchid enthusiasts due to its size, bright colours, and exotic shape. Though it once grew freely throughout northern England, particularly in coppiced woodlands and shaded hillsides, its numbers steadily declined as Victorian and Edwardian collectors dug up its swollen underground stems to grow in their gardens. They also took cuttings from the plant to press, dry and display. Increased scarcity served only to enhance the allure of this orchid. By 1917, it was declared extinct as a British plant.
But then, in 1930, thirteen years after the flower was thought to have vanished, a botanist working in the Yorkshire Dales stumbled across a single plant, growing alone in a secluded part of the National Park. The lady’s slipper orchid instantly became the rarest wildflower in Britain. For almost 40 years, only a small group of botanists even knew about the plant’s continued existence in this country.
Another lady’s slipper orchid later turned up in some woodland near a golf course in Silverdale, Lancashire. Although the site of these two orchids, understandably, remained a closely guarded secret, their locations nonetheless managed to leak into the public domain on a few occasions, sometimes drawing crowds of admirers. Someone even tried to excavate the Yorkshire specimen, damaging but not killing it. In the 1970s, the orchid officially became a protected species in the UK, so botanists started guarding the plants, with volunteer wardens camping nearby during the flowering season each May and June.
In time, it was discovered that the Silverdale plant was not, in fact, native. It comes from Continental, not English, stock, and was probably quietly planted there by a collector many years ago. Fortunately, the Yorkshire specimen was confirmed as genuinely British – and thus, once again, it became the last truly native lady’s slipper orchid left in the country.
Today, that particular plant is still alive and well, its exact whereabouts kept under wraps. But thankfully, it’s no longer alone. A reintroduction project for the lady’s slipper orchid began in 1990. Seeds taken from that last remaining wild plant were taken to the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, where they were successfully propagated and reintroduced to various locations across the species’ former range in northern England. Many have been returned to the Yorkshire Dales, where this plant was once abundant. However, even today, there are still people who would dig up these rare and beautiful plants to keep for themselves, so these reintroduction sites tend to remain well-kept secrets.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at the herring gull – probably one of our most disliked birds, but one that has suffered major population declines in recent years.