A few days ago, friends here In Northamptonshire reported on some orchids they'd found. They were growing in the grass on a roadside along a very quiet country lane. They thought there were about forty early purple orchids (Orchis mascula), so I went up to take a look.
Sure enough, there they were (below) – about sixty five of them as it turned out - scattered through the long grass, their vivid colours standing out from quite a distance. They were all together, none for miles on either side. Lovely.
And it so happened that this find coincided with the a new burst of publicity for the campaign by Plantlife, the British plant conservation charity, aimed at protecting the plants growing on Britain’s roadsides. [Their website helps Brits ask your local council to protect roadside plants.]
Just a mile or two away plants of the bold tawny spikes of the uncommon parasitic plant, the knapweed broomrape (Orobanche elatior) grow on their only host, the greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa), along another quiet lane along with literally miles of meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense)
Close to home over in Pennsylvania, I’ve noticed that roadsides are often the only local location for a number of interesting plants. The only clumps of false Solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum) (below) that I’ve seen nearby are on roadsides and I’ve also noticed more may apple (Podophyllum peltatum) and Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) along roadsides than anywhere else.
Partly, I presume, this is because the deer tempted to eat roadside plants are more likely to be killed by traffic and so the plants are more likely to flourish.
The key factor, of course, is mowing. Just a few hundred yards from those early purple orchids the roadside grass has been shaved like a suburban lawn. Why?! Once a year is ideal, unless the mower turns up at flowering time; mowing too early can prevent flowering and seeding and debilitate the plants. In many areas of Britain, local councils are saving money by mowing less and in some areas special marker posts are used to warn the mowers off.
And then, today, the Journal of the Hardy Orchid Society arrives and there’s an article about a stretch of roadside in Essex, east of London, which is packed with orchids. Along a busy, relatively recently constructed road, there are 350 bee orchids (Ophrys apifera) and 250 pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) - a dramatic increase from 50 bee orchids and 60 pyramidal orchids six years ago. Much of this increase is down to reduced mowing brought on by budget cuts.
So, when you’re stopped in traffic, look out of the window and see what you can see. When you’re a passenger, keep your eyes peeled. But please, when you’re driving, keep your eyes on the road!