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Orchid for May: Man orchid (Orchis anthropophora)

Posted: Monday 8th May 2017 by Michael-Waller

Man orchid (credit Michael Waller)Man orchid (credit Michael Waller)

In his latest blog about London's orchids, London Wildlife Trust's Conservation Ecologist Michael Waller introduces us to the 'man orchid'...

Like a tiny yellow alien, the humanoid figure of the man orchid flower dangles among up to 120 others along a tall spike hidden in the grasses.

No-one is quite sure why the man orchid has evolved flowers with such an uncanny resemblance to our own frame but the similarity is clear, even to the most unimaginative of observers.

Man orchid (credit Michael Waller)

The man orchid is a speciality of the southern chalk, finding its way into deepest south London where the North Downs edge over the border from Surrey and Kent, providing a few special haunts on the outskirts of the capital.

Although tolerant of light shade, only the warmest south-facing banks are favoured by man orchids - mimicking the hot Mediterranean climates from where it originates.

Like other Mediterranean orchid species, the man orchid doesn't bother hiding underground outside of the flowering season. It braves the cold winter air to absorb every ray of light it can in preparation for summer flowering. If you're lucky, you can spot the spiral of leaves, known as a rosette, among snow and hail when most other plants lie dormant.

All is not well for the species, however. With a 56% decline in Britain, the man orchid is listed as 'nationally scarce' in the UK. The loss of rough grazing pastures and scrub under the plough caused healthy populations to be totally wiped out.

Fortunately, our conservation team has provided a vital refuge for the species at our Saltbox Hill and Chapel Bank nature reserves. Elsewhere in London, the man orchid can be seen at Kenley Common and Farthing Downs in south Croydon.

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