The secret garden
With only a single specimen surviving in the wild, the lady's slipper orchid is Britain's rarest, and most heavily guarded, flower. But a hush-hush breeding project may soon mean that we can all enjoy its beauty once again. Roger Ratcliffe reports
Thursday June 21, 2007
In 1917, the lady's slipper orchid was officially declared extinct. The mania for orchid-collecting during Victorian times, it seemed, had simply been too much for it. But then, in 1930, on a hillside in Yorkshire, a wandering botanist stumbled upon (not literally, one hopes) a solitary specimen of this strange and glorious flower. Since then, the lady's slipper orchid has held the dubious - and dangerous - distinction of being Britain's rarest flower.
For four decades the fact of this last plant's very existence was known to just a few botanists; the plant - which may, undisturbed, survive until it is 100 years old - is now guarded round the clock when in flower. The fear, even today, is that obsessive orchidophiles might dig the thing up. Or if not, that some innocent might trample it.
But the botanists have not been content with simply keeping this last wild plant safe. Behind the scenes, and amid great secrecy, huge efforts have been under way in recent years to breed the orchid, and to reintroduce new plants into the wild. It has been a task whose difficulty might fairly be compared with the struggle to breed pandas, yet it is possible that, not too long from now, lady's slipper orchids could be growing wild again on a hill near you.
Let's start with the last wild specimen, though. Where is it exactly? "Well," says Stephen Morley, conservation adviser for the National Trust in Yorkshire and the north-east. "I wouldn't be surprised if you discovered where it is. Information about the wild site has got out to the public. It's not a badly kept secret, but enough people now know where to find the lady's slipper for us to be worried."
Morley is right. It takes this correspondent just two phone calls to pinpoint the location of the last wild lady's slipper orchid (although to obtain it I am required to give a guarantee that nothing more specific than "the Yorkshire Dales" will be printed in this article). The ease with which the site can be found is testified to by the fact that wardens feel it necessary to bivouac close to the plant in spring and summer, as they have done most years since 1970; working in shifts, they use tripwires to signal the arrival of intruders.
Few disturbances are reported: the site is not on a public right of way, and it is on private land not included in recent right-to-roam legislation. However, it is viewable from a distance, and wardens have sometimes found themselves being watched through telescopes - ominous, perhaps, given that this is not an area known for bird-watching.
"The lady's slipper attracts attention because it's beautiful and rare," Morley says. "Indeed, it is rare because it is so beautiful."
In bloom, Cypripedium calceolus, to give the plant its Latin name, sports a yellow slipper-like pouch decorated with ribbons that look as if they have been dipped in claret. As, arguably, one of the most exquisite plants ever to grow in the British countryside, it was dug up for collections and gardens as early as the 17th century, and became a nice earner for country folk in Victorian times, when it was sold from market stalls at Skipton, Settle and Ingleton in North Yorkshire.
The botanist who rediscovered the plant in 1930 let fellow botanists in on the secret, and after confirming its identification they repaired excitedly to a nearby inn: even today, Morley wants the inn's name withheld, believing it would be like placing a large sign over the lady's slipper. Over a drink, the botanists formed a committee to establish guards on the plant every year. Today, the committee is run by Natural England, the government's outdoors agency.
Its dozen members include the handful of botanists who are currently trusted with knowledge of the location, as well as representatives of various bodies involved in the project. The Cypripedium Committee, as it is known, is so concerned about disturbing the fragile ground where the wild plant grows that it has allowed itself just one visit in 20 years. Instead, it spends most of its time monitoring the reintroduction programme that's now under way, coded details of which are kept on computer by Morley, who represents the National Trust on the committee.
The hush-hush reintroduction project began in the mid-1990s, when seeds taken from the last wild plant were propagated in flasks at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. A cultivated plant, known as the Hornby, with origins verified as being a wild site on the north Lancashire-Yorkshire border where the lady's slipper has been long extinct, was a vital part of this process. Pollen taken from the Hornby plant was used to pollinate the last remaining lady's slipper in the wild, and is also now used to pollinate those being cultivated for placing back into the English countryside.
For years it proved almost impossible to make the resulting seeds germinate, one reason being that in the mysterious world of orchids the seeds have to be taken from the flower at just the right number of days after pollination. Any earlier, or later, and they won't grow. At Kew, part of the steep learning curve on the lady's slipper project was the discovery that the seeds had to be unripe, otherwise they wouldn't germinate.
Seedlings, once they had finally been grown, were then returned to Yorkshire and reared until they were thought strong enough to be placed outdoors. In the first year of the programme, according to Morley's spreadsheet, 71 plants were readied for reintroduction, but the vast majority failed or were found to contain genes of a plant from continental Europe - a near disaster in terms of safeguarding the indigenous British gene-stock.
Today, 550 cultivated lady's slipper plants are being grown in cold frames - despite the name, the best way of keeping plants warm outdoors - at a number of locations in England. Like the reintroduction sites, their locations are being kept top secret for fear of attracting the attention of obsessive orchid hunters for whom native lady's slipper orchid seedlings would be highly prized.
So far, almost 100 plants have been quietly reintroduced to the wild, discreetly placed in suitable growing habitats across the flower's known haunts of a century ago, including spots in County Durham, Cumbria, Lancashire and Derbyshire. Some are growing anonymously beside one of the busiest footpaths in northern England, having so far failed to flower. In fact, the problem still dogging the lady's slipper reintroduction project is that those behind it are still learning to spot the precise habitats where success is likely. What looks like an ideal site on the surface, might turn out to be poor for the plant's roots.
It's in Yorkshire that most of the lady's slipper reintroductions have taken place, but many of them have failed to flower. In fact, of the 100 or so lady's slippers planted out in the wild over the past few years as part of this project, only four have so far produced any flowers, and there have been no orchid babies, as it were, produced.
Morley, however, believes that recent successes in raising seedlings to maturity in cold frames gives cause for optimism that considerably more will be flowering on English hillsides in the next few years, and that they may soon start reproducing naturally.
But there is some way to go before the public can learn where to see the plants. Already, several of the reintroduced seedlings have been discovered growing wild in Yorkshire and stolen. Another plant - not from native British stock but from European - was partially dug up at Silverdale in Lancashire three years ago. One of Natural England's delegates on the Cypripedium Committee, Colin Newlands, says the thefts justify the secrecy surrounding the project. "I'm sorry to sound so hush-hush, as if I work for MI5," he says. "It might be easier to obtain details of a new secret missile than to find people who will talk about the lady's slipper." There is no officially sanctioned lady's slipper site he can reveal for the public to visit, nor a viewing facility like those found at osprey nests or golden eagle eyries.
"It's going to be difficult to arrange," Newlands says when I ask to see one growing wild. "The problem with orchids is they are so erratic in their appearance. Some years they don't flower, and when they do it happens only in the first or second week of June then lasts just a couple of weeks before fading."
Rather than having one site for people to visit, the programme's hugely ambitious aim is to make the lady's slipper so numerous and widespread - so downright common or garden - that its survival won't be endangered by orchidophiles.
"In the end," says Newlands, "its survival might depend on sheer weight of numbers, so that even if some people have bad intentions there will still be enough of the plant out there in the wild for people to enjoy." And the one true wild site, the last naturally surviving lady's slipper? Will the public ever be allowed to view that? No, says Newlands bluntly. If he has his way, the flower will live and die in peace.
Orchid obsession: a brief history
The Victorians had a name for orchid obsession - Orchidelirium - and they sailed uncharted seas to bring home new species. The Duke of Devonshire once bankrolled an expedition to the far east that produced more than 80 new species for his collection at Chatsworth. Not all such endeavours were so successful. Another trip to the Canadian Rockies ended with two of the Duke's gardeners drowning when their boat capsized on the Columbia river. Once, a group of Victorian orchid hunters travelled thousands of miles to find one of the world's rarest species, but after several weeks gave up the search and broke camp - only to find that the flower they sought had been destroyed beneath the waterproof groundsheet of their tent.
Today, orchids still hold collectors in their thrall, and people still go to a great deal of trouble to acquire them. Occasionally, the trouble they get in makes the news. In the 1990s, for example, a US horticulturist named John Laroche stole rare ghost orchids from the Fakahatchee Swamp, Florida, and set out to clone them. (The story was used as the basis of the 2002 film Adaptation.) In 2000, two Britons on a collecting expedition in Colombia were kidnapped by suspected Farc fighters. Paul Winder, a merchant banker, and Tom Hart Dyke, a horticulturist in the grand tradition of Victorian plant collectors, were held captive for nine months before being released.
There are about 35,000 different species in the wild, and 300,000 hybrids available to buy, and the only places on earth they don't grow are Antarctica and the Gobi Desert. Why do they hold such fascination for some? George Barnes, of the North of England Orchid Society, the longest established orchid club in the world, says: "Orchids are the oldest form of flowering plant life there is, so there's something primeval about them. People have died for them, and still go to jail for them, because it's illegal to move them from one country to another. Our members may not travel the world looking for orchids, but they still feel passionate about them. What else would bring together a university professor and a bus driver? Orchids are great levellers."
Some species in tropical jungles attach themselves to the tops of trees and survive on light, rainwater and air. Which probably accounts for the fact that one or two new species are discovered every year, and people in the grip of Orchidelirium still go out looking for them.