Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles
Author: Jon Dunn
Orchids have long cast a spell over our imagination, fuelling in the obsessive collectors of the Victorian age a state known as ‘orchidelirium’. Today these celebrities of the plant kingdom continue to fascinate and entrance.
‘Orchid Summer’, the tale of the author’s quest to see all the orchid species of the British Isles in a single year, taps into this long-rooted obsession with our most charismatic plants. Its approach mirrors that of a number of other ‘big year’ accounts featuring birds and butterflies. It is, however, no soulless exercise in tick-hunting. Instead we are treated to a thoughtful, appreciative and often reverential journey amongst Britain’s most celebrated and iconic plants.
During one very special summer Dunn travels to all corners of our islands - to the granite ramparts of the Isles of Scilly, the hidden fens of Norfolk’s Broadland, the limestone pavement of the Burren, the dune slacks of Lindisfarne, the flower-studded machair of North Uist and the windswept turf of Unst. In these and many other places he meets a rich cast of characters - the delicate Fly Orchid, the exquisite Dark-red Helleborine, the exuberant Lady Orchid and a host of other delights.
Through these encounters we are drawn ever more deeply into the orchids’ complicated world - taxonomic conundrums, a bewildering variety of subspecies, a host of rare variations and a multiplicity of confusing hybrid forms. We learn too of the ever-surprising ecology of these plants, from the strange parasitic life of the Bird’s-nest Orchid (living off underground beechwood fungi) to the curious evolution of the heavy metal-tolerant ‘Tyne Helleborine’.
The book is rooted in the scientific literature, charting our evolving knowledge of orchids from medieval times via Darwin to the most up to date genetic studies. But there are equally fascinating human dimensions too - friends old and new encountered on the journey and a host of personalities and stories from our long history of orchid obsession. The orchid ‘community’ (invariably male of course) is revealed to be riven with politics - a veritable snakepit of secrecy, intrigue and competing ambition. In this respect, the comparisons with the ornithological world are striking. The tale of botanical fraud on the island of Rum, for example, provides a clear echo of the ‘Hastings rarities’ scandal or the Meinertzhagen affair, the secrecy surrounding the Lady’s Slipper Orchid has obvious parallels in rare bird suppression and the Dorset Sawfly Orchid invokes the familiar debates in the bird world around provenance and ‘tickability’.
Of course the appeal of orchids lies not just in their scientific interest nor in their historical associations. They are, above all, things of beauty, and their first and perhaps most important hold over us is personal and aesthetic. This vital dimension is not neglected here, the author’s engagements with orchids - the intimate moments of encounter, the joy and relief of discovering a single rare plant, the sheer spectacle of orchids en masse - all captured in a fitting spirit of delight and wonder. On seeing a Sawfly Orchid he notes ‘That heart-thumping, euphoric moment when I dropped to my knees beside it and drank in the flower’s alien beauty...’
This is a complex but carefully constructed book - part road trip, part botanical treatise, part historical exploration and part aesthetic appreciation. That the author has been able to balance and interweave these disparate elements is testament to his skill as a writer. The prose is beautifully crafted and perfectly polished. It shines an unusually bright and clear light onto an often murky world.
‘Orchid Summer’ is a wonderfully lucid celebration of Britain’s best-loved plants, their affecting, fragile beauty and the special places they inhabit. It will surely foster a wider enjoyment of our ‘wildest flowers’ and a renewed concern for their fate in an increasingly threatened countryside.
20 February 2018
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