The plant cure

Botany isn’t about the whimsical world of flower fairies, but clever, entrepreneurial plants that learn to deceive, or which can survive in habitats where no one wants them

Drawing Board
Dune pansies at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria

The fly orchid is so small that most people walk right by it without even noticing. Actually, most people don’t know that there’s such a thing as a fly orchid, or indeed that it grows wild in Britain. That it’s such a secret treasure is only part of my reasoning for loving this wild flower. It’s also its cunningness as a plant, as it lives upon a lie.

Ophrys insectifera has evolved to look, feel and smell like a virgin female digger wasp. Its lip is fluffy, and it emits pheromones that attract excited male wasps as they buzz about looking for a mate. The males emerge earlier than the females, and the orchids lie in wait for them. The male finds what he thinks is a particularly alluring female, lands and starts trying to have his dirty way with her. Except the orchid is the one having its dirty way with the wasp: while he is having the most boring sex of his life, the plant is starting its own reproductive process, dropping its pollen onto his back. After a while, he gives up and buzzes off to what he hopes is another, more interested female, taking the pollen with him to fertilise another orchid.

What an amazing wheeze these plants have come up with, duping insects to this extent. No wonder so many of the species in the Ophrys genus — which includes our native bee orchid and early and late spider orchids — look like chuckling faces.

I love scrambling about the countryside finding and photographing wild flowers, especially orchids. For me, botany isn’t about the whimsical world of flower fairies, but clever, entrepreneurial plants that learn to deceive, or which can survive in habitats where no one wants them. Other orchids get wasps drunk, carnivorous plants that live in British bogs dissolve their prey on their leaves to make up for the lack of nutrients in the soil, and others still have developed their own seed-spreading equivalent of guided missiles. The Danish scurvygrass, for instance, spreads along the motorway network using its exploding seed pods, thriving in the salty environment of the central reservation. How can you not stop a moment in wonder at nature when you find all this out?

Yes, yes, many of my favourite wild flowers just look utterly exquisite, especially en masse. Who has stood among the cow parsley in spring and not felt glad to be alive in this cool green-and white froth? In late summer, the meadows turn as rich as a woven carpet with deep reds, purples and golds from scabious, saw-wort and great burnet–which has little scarlet pom-pom flowers at the end of waving wands. The lady’s slipper orchid, which you can only see in the wild at Gait Barrows in Silverdale, Lancashire, is gaudy and implausible-looking, with an acid yellow “slipper” lip and twisting claret-coloured petals. When I first saw it, I was on long-term sick leave and disconsolately plodding around, trying to distract myself from the noisy mental illness that had invited itself round. The wonder I felt on seeing this rare plant for the first time didn’t cure me. But it made me want to stick around a good while longer to enjoy the strange, secret world of plants.