Back From the Brink – Lesser Butterfly Orchid

Lesser Butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia) (Photo by Bjorn S)

Dear Readers, the Lesser Butterfly Orchid is a delicately-beautiful plant, with a flowering spike that can grow to 30 cms high and contain up to 25 individual greenish cream flowers. At night, the blooms are heavily scented, and are pollinated by hawk moths.

It is a remarkably tolerant plant. In some places, it lives in acidic bogs, yet you can also find it forests and grassland. What is certain is that the plant has disappeared from 75% of its former range, and that there are a variety of causes. Drainage and an excess of nutrients from agricultural run-off seem to damage the plant, and as grassland reverts to scrub, bracken and brambles overshadow it. Furthermore, the orchid has a close relationship with a symbiotic fungus, especially in its early years, and the fungus can be destroyed by fungicides or by too much nitrogen and phosphate. Like many orchids, the Lesser Butterfly Orchid grows and reproduces slowly, and simply can’t compete with many of the more vigorous plants. Finally, although the plant can survive some light grazing, it can’t cope with being heavily munched upon every year.

All of these factors will also affect other grassland plants, so helping the orchid to survive will also benefit many other specialist species.

So, what to do? The charity Plantlife joined forces with the Cornwall and Devon Wildlife Trusts, to cut back bracken and to survey sites for where the orchid was already present. To help any endangered organism, people have to first recognise it, and then appreciate it, and so a number of plant walks were held and an art event, where people were encouraged to paint and write about the plant. I loved this image by Alex Hyde.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid by Alex Hyde

Local landowners were also invited to collaborate on land management techniques to encourage the orchid, and it sounds as if many were happy to oblige.

Orchids always seem so exotic and otherworldly, but there are 52 wild orchid species in the UK. Whenever I go to Austria, I am amazed to see many species of orchid not only growing on grass verges and in fields but growing in profusion. Clearly they are doing something right, as there is an abundance of plant and invertebrate life that we have lost. Maybe one day we’ll be better able to look after our fields, not just for whatever is feeding on them or growing in them for our consumption, but for the whole of the community of plants and animals that surround us. Until then, these projects are helping to educate a whole new generation of landowners and members of the public about plants and animals that might not have noticed before. Knowing that something is there, and starting to understand it, is key to caring about it.

By © Hans Hillewaert


7 thoughts on “Back From the Brink – Lesser Butterfly Orchid

  1. Ann Bronkhorst

    In Eastern Europe and the Balkans agriculture is less intensive,for various reasons. In central Bosnia I saw wild flowers in profusion: enchanting.

  2. Claire

    Remember observing wild orchids in the centre of France in the 1960s . ( with my parents). It was like magic! Now we have 160 species, 1 in 6 vulnerable or endangered. Clearly we are not doing enough to protect them from intensive agriculture.


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