Botanical Trip to Wales Part 1 - 21st June 2016
Over the last couple of months I researched nature reserves and places to visit and made some new friends online. This proved vital in obtaining accurate up to date information on where to go and what to see. In return, I helped or offered help to locate rare Kent plants.
I set off just after 9am from North Kent with the intention of detouring en route to see Bee Orchid variants and arriving around 3pm in Wales. That was a pipe dream though, because, as usual, the M25 was at a standstill and I had to divert a few times, adding a lot of time to the journey.
Anyway, I later arrived in middle England at my first destination which was a junction of two A roads cut through chalk with an orchid filled roundabout between them. All of them were Common Spotted Orchids.
I walked along one of the main roads wearing my nice reflective yellow vest of course, until I came to an area where I had been informed I would find Bee Orchid variants. On the way I saw plenty of normal looking Bee Orchids, all beautiful in their own right, but I was here to see rare variants.
I met three people from the local wildlife trust who kindly saved me time looking for the variants and took me straight to one.
This little beauty is quite rare, but then all of the recognised variants are I suppose!
Ophrys apifera var. belgarum
The shape and pattern of this Bee Orchid is quite different to the normal ones (see above). It looked great next to a Red Clover flower as well, it shows how small this orchid was and how easy it would be to walk straight past it!
However, more was yet to come.
On the opposite side of the road was a single specimen of the bi coloured variant, more strikingly diffrent from the norm.
Ophrys apifera var. bicolor
Very unusual and I was very pleased to see them for real and not in a book.
I then drove down the same road about 5 miles or so to another site, this time just a layby. It had long grass and the worn paths through it made me think I was on the way to an unofficial layby toilet area!
But, instead of someone's waste and toilet paper I found a few of these Bee Orchid variants which used to be called the Wasp Orchid.
They are quite my faviourite variant with a long thin tapering lip and striking pattern.
Ophrys apifera var. trolli
Nothing like the usual form in this case!
After this detour which took a lot longer than I expected, it was back on track to Wales. However, from here there were no dual carriageways or motorways with several towns in the way as well.
Needless to say I got stuck behind several tractors as well!
Eventually I passed into Wales and the landscape changed considerably.
I spotted these growing out of cracks in the crumbly slate like cliffs by the road, so stopped to have a look.
They were Navelwort, which are very rare in Kent and the South East but very common here. I have only seen them locally growing in the base of a tree trunk at Scotney Castle and on the walls of Camber Castle.
Here's a close up of the flowers. The petals form a tube and are pale green, so not very colourful, but very interesting all the same.
I then made my way to the top of the Elan Valley, not to see the spectacular dams but to have a look around the bogs there for unusual plants.
I did hope for a Bog Orchid but I knew I was very early for those. All records of them are from July onwards.
On the bare rocks grew English Stonecrop. Somehow it looked nicer than when I see it in Kent. Possibly as I often see it growing on old concrete areas!
Another common plant that is rare in Kent was Sheep's Bit. Now sheep were everywhere and heavily graze these hills, but it seems they don't like eating these!
Being found high up in the hills in numbers, at least explained to me their scientific name of "montana" or mountain.
This is the view from Pont Elan bridge, an area where there might be Bog Orchids.
Of course, being late June I didn't find any evidence of them at all.
But I did find this....
This is the Round-leaved Sundew, an insect eating plant that traps small insects like midges on its sticky blobs and digests them. They are only found in bogs, usually acidic ones and are actually only about 2" tall, so easy to miss.
This was the only one I found, so I was very fortunate to see it. To take the photo I had to lean over a dodgy bit of bog and take the photo at arm's length. I really didn't want to tread in that bit of bog as I knew I'd sink past my wellies!
Cotton Grasses abounded in their hundreds, mostly in dense patches. Only found in a few sites in Kent, they are very prolific in Mid Wales. Despite its name, it is actually a Sedge.
That was it for this area and I drove about another 45 minutes to my hotel for the night as time was getting on. There's always a nagging doubt that if you arrive late your booked room might be given to someone else as the owner thinks I'm not turning up. Don't bother thinking you can phone them as in most of this area of Wales I had no phone signal at all.
After settling into my very comfortable lodging with a very friendly hostess it was about 8pm, only 5 hours later than my original plan! I wanted to go and find the extremely rare Small White Orchid nearby but dithered over whether I should just go there now or leave it to the morning. Well, given how late I ran today, I thought that there's still 2 hours of daylight so let's go now! And go I did.
The hotel was only 10 minutes away from a small secluded reserve in the middle of nowhere. After a short walk I entered the meadow and wondered how quickly could I find these rare orchids.
It turned out very quickly! It order to mark where they were growing and to stop people accidentally treading on them, each orchid had a big white post near it, so I found them very easily.
These are now believed extinct in all of England and in virtually all of Wales now, through habitat loss, neglect and possibly climate warming as further North they are found more often.
They are only about a foot tall but covered in small off white and green flowers. I got out the camera to shoot some pictures when the scourge of acid heathlands and bogs attacked.
I got midged!
1000s of tiny biting midges descended on me drawn to the heat of my body. Luckily, being cooler in the evening I had put on a hoody and drew it tight to my face.
However, it meant rushing the photos to avoid having my face bitten to bits.
The flower structure is very similar to that of the humble Musk Orchid but these were white and much more numerous on the stem. I didn't have a chance to see if they had scent!
So in low light, being eaten alive, without a tripod, I took what photos I could. I then visited the several other posts but only found one more of these lovely orchids in flower.
This one was skinny and sparsely flowered compared to the other, but I felt privileged to have seen them up close without having to travel to Scotland!
While changing lenses here (and still in a swarm of midges) I noticed several vetch type flowers around me which looked new to me yet vaguely familiar.
I was extremely surprised and pleased to find a colony of Wood Bitter Vetch, a very rare plant that I hadn't seen before, except I had. It's on the cover of Harrap's Wildflower book. A brilliant unexpected find.
Note they have no tendrils at all, unlike most other vetches.
Unfortunately recent heavy rain had flattened them somewhat, but I think the low light levels set the photos off nicely.
I then took a quick walk around a boggy area, if only to keep the midges off by moving frequently!
I then had another fantastic surprise!
Sitting on a Bluebell (in June!) was this striking Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterfly. Another first for me. I couldn't get a shot of it with open wings and I let it be as it no doubt it had low energy levels after heavy rainfall.
I walked back up towards the orchids again and spotted a few of these Heath Fragrant Orchids, guess what - I'd not seen these before either.
I've seen thousands of Chalk Fragrant Orchids, but this type of orchid now has three different species (previously sub species) thanks to DNA research.
There's a Marsh Fragrant Orchid I'd like to find one day as well.
For these I did risk midge destruction and took time for a sniff - they smelled just as heavenly as the Chalk Fragrants do, stunning!
As I walked back towards the road I spotted tiny pink flowers in the grasses which turned out to be Lousewort, yet another new species.
Though found in a few places in Kent, I've always missed their flowering times. Without flowers you never see them!
They are parasitical on nearby plants, much like Eyebrights, Broomrapes and Bartsia are.
My final find was Dyer's Greenweed, a rare plant in Kent but one I have growing in a local nature reserve close to my home. Still nice to see. The pea like flowers are on spikes that are rarely more than 10" tall.
On the drive back down a river valley I stopped off at a waterfall. It was so lovely, peaceful and I was alone.
Unfortunately by now it was getting dark, the midges had reinforcements of a brigade of mossies, so it was time to head back to the hotel.
I had an early start tomorrow with two stunning venues to visit which were:
A Plantlife reserve at Cae Blaen-diffryn in Mid Wales, and
Kenfig in South Wales.
Watch out for Part 2 that covers these fantastic places, coming soon.