In search of a Ghost orchid, a letter from a botanist.

Recently I was absolutely astounded to see a picture on twitter of a plant that has evaded me for all of my 37 years of plant twitching. Whats more the fellow botanist and ecologist that had posted it was kind enough to tag me in the tweet that accompanied the picture.

The picture was of a Ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) a plant that gains all of its nutrients by parasitising a fungus, a myco-heterotroph. I have been intrigued by these botanical anomalies (as have many others) all my life and the following account sent to me not long after the ‘tweet’ re-kindled my interest.
So I have posted the email sent to me by @daveyecology so you can read his amazing adventure in search of a GHOST.
(I have changed some bits to protect identities etc)

Hello again Robbie

It is pleasing that you have enjoyed the photographs of plants, and especially the Irises that I have been putting up on Twitter recently. I have practically run out of the Iris photographs I have now, but will carry on putting up nice things that I have found and photographed over the years. I thought you might be amused by the story of my seeing Epipogium aphyllum back in 1971; it was quite an experience. I have just checked my records and it was actually 1971 I saw the ghost orchid and not 1972, and it was on 22nd of August.

I had been told where it was by a botanist friend who lived quite close to the site. Another friend had already tried for it no less than twenty times when I decided to go and have a go one weekend. He said I was bound to find it, as he couldn’t go with me. I arrived at the site, and walked through the beech woodland, and received a hefty adrenal punch when there, on the ground amongst the beech leaves was a tiny Ghost Orchid. It was perhaps an inch high, and had just one flower. I marked the spot by arranging a triangle of branches leaning against trees around the site, and went off to telephone the chap who couldn’t go with me. On the way to the phone box, I found a second plant in a ditch by the road that descends through the wood. It was another about an inch tall with  single flower. Having made the phone call, I went back to the site, and was walking through the wood when I noticed another guy, festooned with cameras walking parallel to me. After a while he bucked up courage and walked across to me.

“Are you looking for what I think you are looking for?” He asked enigmatically.

“Maybe,” I replied evasively.

“Have you found it?” He asked. Because of the nature of the conversation so far I answered him,

“That depends who you know.” He gave me the name of the woman who had told me, so I decided to show him the one furthest from the road.

“Gosh, I see what you mean,” He spluttered when we had only gone a few yards. There in a leaf filled hollow were two magnificent plants. One was the one I put up yesterday on twitter, and the other was an equally fine two flowered plant. These were certainly not very near the little fellow I had found earlier. We sat down and took a series of photos. I had a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex as well as a Pentax Spotmatic recently acquired by the museum service I worked for. The photo I showed on Twitter was one I took using flash and a bit over exposed. The light levels were very low. Very carefully after we had finished taking the photos, we used a matchstick to cross pollinate the three flowered plant from the two flowered one. After applying considerable pressure, the pollinia sprang out from the floral column, and we achieved pollination. I would think an insect at least as heavy as a bumble-bee would be needed to achieve pollination. Perhaps that is why it is so rare.

A week later I returned to the site, and the three flowered plant was a dried husk having set and released its seed. Amazingly quick. Altogether five plants were found in that hollow during that week. I cannot remember how many plants were found altogether, but I found one at least half a mile away in a section of wood on the other side of the road. The friend who had failed twenty times duly visited the site and got his photographs. He actually found a twin flowered plant still beneath the leaves. The top flower was a bud, but the lower one had opened before it had emerged from the leaves.

In 1978, a botanical friend from Norfolk came to stay, and we were wondering what to do after we had spent the first day in the New Forest. I said it would be a long shot, but we might try for the ghost orchid. We found a single plant with one flower a few yards from the site of the one I had found in 1971 in the roadside ditch. That must have been about the last time it was seen, this time on August 14th.

I think it grows like a fungus, and there is probably much more plant under the leaves than ever appears above ground. Rumours of it turning up a year or two ago in a national nature reserve either in Shropshire or Herefordshire close to the Welsh border are evidently correct. I believe this is a site where it was also found many,  many years ago.

A plant I have seen that might interest you was seen from a cruise ship when my wife and I were involved in lecturing between the Caribbean and the Pacific while going through the Panama Canal. This is Equisetum myriochaetum which I believe is the biggest horsetail around these days. My photos aren’t too good as we didn’t get too close, but you are welcome to see them if you would like to.

It was in 2011 that my wife and I went to Israel, but it was in May so we didn’t see very many plants. One nice thing was a poppy, Papaver carmeli with dark centres in the Golan Heights which we saw as we looked across the border at Syria. Are you going to write a blog about your Israeli adventures with the Oncos? I look forward very much indeed to seeing it.

All the best