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Orchid for August: Autumn lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis)

Posted: Monday 14th August 2017 by Michael-Waller

Autumn lady’s-tresses (credit Michael Waller)Autumn lady’s-tresses (credit Michael Waller)

In his latest blog about London's orchids, London Wildlife Trust's Conservation Ecologist Michael Waller reveals an orchid with historic significance

As the common name rightly suggests, autumn lady's-tresses is the last of the season's orchids – flowering alone as most plants set seed and prepare for the cold.

Autumn lady’s-tresses, like so many of our southern species, is built for the heat. It flowers late in the season to avoid the intensity of the Mediterranean summer. Take a walk through the Cretan hills in October and you may find many thousands poking through the baked soil. Of course, here in the UK there is no need to flower quite that late - but the adaptation remains.

The species is also London’s smallest orchid, reaching no more than 15cm tall. The thin leaf-less spikes of tubular white flowers spiral around the stem, rising from the bowling green-short turfs of lucky lawns, road-side verges and even old tennis courts, underlain by chalk or limestone.

With such a penchant for neatly trimmed alkaline grasslands, autumn lady’s-tresses has a predictable distribution in London, being restricted to the southern boroughs where it claims a toehold in the capital. But the species has a much longer history in London than you might expect.

In 1548, despite its small stature, William Turner published his infamous The Names of Herbes in which he makes the world's first reference to autumn lady's-tresses. It also makes the species the first ever orchid to be recorded in Britain:

“Satyrion is very commune in Germany, and a certeyne ryghte kynde of the same groweth besyde Syon, it bryngeth furth whyte floures in the end of harveste and it is called Lady traces.” 

The name "Syon" refers to the grand royal house and park by the same name situated on the north bank of the Thames, directly opposite Kew Gardens in west London. In 1541, Henry VIII's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was brought to Syon for her long imprisonment, but the following year she was executed at the Tower of London. It’s tantalising to imagine Turner carefully examining the autumn lady's-tresses within sight of the imposing house just two months before Catherine was forcibly taken there.

Keep an eye out for the autumn lady's-tresses next time you find yourself in a short grassy corner of Bromley or Croydon. You might just strike lucky and see a plant which has been admired by London botanists for nearly half a millennium.
 

Read Michael-Waller's latest blog entries.

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