White Helleborines come to Lincolnshire

Words by:
Colin Smale
Featured in:
August 2015

Grimsby ornithologist and orchid lover for more than ten years, Chris Heaton travels far and wide to see orchids but he could not believe his eyes when recently he came across some rare White Helleborines growing right in the middle of his own home town.
Among orchid aficionados this is something quite sensational. In July 2013 the London Natural History Society discovered White Helleborines (Cephalanthera damasonium) growing in the gardens of Buckingham Palace; this plant has not been seen in London for more than 100 years. Dr Mark Spencer, a museum botanist said: “The find was unexpected but very exciting for everyone involved. It is quite unusual to find the White Helleborine north of the Thames, let alone in the middle of the city, in the Queen’s back garden.”

It has since been found as far north as Cambridgeshire but Chris’s discovery now puts it about 100 miles north of that and so this is, as far as anyone knows, the most northerly reach of this delicate pale orchid that has chosen Lincolnshire as its next step north.

It was in June last year when Chris (52) first saw it but it was just going past its best flowering period. That seemed very odd to him, he thought it was another species of orchid that should have flowered much later in the year – in July in fact – so something was very strange about this. That was what raised his suspicion that this was not normal and actually might be Cephalanthera damasonium.

He decided to return to the site this year in time to catch them as they came into flower, if indeed they were still there. They did indeed reappear in May and as they came into flower he invited me to come along with my camera. He also invited friend and fellow plant enthusiast Bill Meek who came to have a look, as did the county recorder Paul Kirby. They both congratulated Chris on this find of the century in ‘Orchid world’.

Chris’s first orchids of 2015 were the early purple orchids (Orchis macula) in local Dixon’s wood, which is open to the public, on the outskirts of Grimsby. Chris says orchids are two weeks behind this year, no doubt due to the pretty cool spring we have had.

Last year Chris finally saw the very rare Violet Helleborine in Morkery Wood, South Lincs, the only colony in the whole of Lincolnshire and this sighting completed his Lincolnshire Orchid list. Lincolnshire has twenty-two different species of orchid and now he has seen them all.

Chris went to Kent recently with fellow orchid enthusiasts Mark and Sally Johnson from North Somercotes, to see the Early Spider Orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) found only on the south coast, and also saw there the Lady Orchid (Orchis purpurea) and the Monkey Orchid (Orchis simian), so he gets around.

I asked Chris what sparked his interest in orchids. He described to me in colourful and enthusiastic detail his first orchid sighting. It was of course the Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) and who cannot be ‘wowed’ by that little beauty? For such a colourful flower they are not as easy to see as one might imagine, especially when there are only a few single blooms about, but as with all orchids, once you get your eye in, suddenly there’s another and another and that’s how it seems to go.

Happily his wife Jeanette is also an enthusiastic lover of all things flora and fauna which makes for a much better life! Chris’s ornithological forays have been pretty darn good too. In February 2014 he found a two-barred crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) in Forest Pines Wood just outside Scunthorpe. Luckily his friend Mark Johnson was with him to confirm such a rare sighting. After that, the word got out to the twitchers and just for a little while this small red beauty was the dandy of the woods, until it moved on as they do. The two-barred crossbill had not been seen in Lincolnshire since the 1880s, so yet again it was quite a find.

Another one of Chris’s noteworthy avian sightings was so very different from that tiny crossbill. Who in their right mind would ever have thought they would see a white-tailed sea eagle in Lincolnshire but in May 2011 over Haugham and Burwell woods, with its eight-foot wingspan and weighing in at around ten to fifteen pounds, was indeed a white-tailed sea eagle, more used to the sea cliffs and pines of Scotland than Lincolnshire, so Chris reported it in. It was truly an unbelievable sighting and, with no indication that it was an escaped bird, it drew birdwatchers to Lincolnshire from far and wide.

Yes, Chris certainly has enthusiasm and a keen eye. I asked him which new orchid he thinks might turn up next. He said there was no way of knowing, who would have predicted that White Helleborine?

What is the rarest orchid Chris has seen so far, anywhere? Amazingly it is that White Helleborine, almost on his doorstep!

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