For me, one of the best things about this time of year is the sense of expectation; species you hope to see and nature reserves you plan to visit. One of my regular trips in late May takes me just over the border into Suffolk to view one of Britain’s three colonies of military orchid. This plant has all of the qualities that make orchids so seductive for the botanist. Not only is the military orchid a very rare plant but it is also one of the most beautiful native blooms that you could hope to see. In common with a number of related species, the flower resembles a tiny human figure, complete with a head, arms and legs. In the military orchid, the ‘head’ resembles an old-fashioned helmet, pale on the outside but flushed with purple on the inside. The ‘arms’ and ‘legs’ are pale mauve and a series of purple spots, arranged like buttons on a tunic, speckle the lip of the flower, giving the appearance of a tiny man in uniform.
Although this species was once fairly common across parts of southern England, over-collecting and changes in habitat management led to a sudden decline. By 1929 the species was considered extinct but in 1947 it was dramatically rediscovered in Buckinghamshire. J E Lousley, the discoverer, kept the location of the site secret, although it was subsequently ‘discovered’ by another pair of botanists a number of years later. The location of the colony was made pubic in 1975, by which time the local Wildlife Trust had ownership of the site and had implemented measures to safeguard the plants. Even more amazing was the discovery in 1955 of a colony growing in an old chalk pit near Mildenhall. This site, owned by the Forestry Commission, is now managed in conjunction with Suffolk Wildlife Trust and is known as the Rex Graham Reserve. Over the course of the bank holiday at the end of May, the Trust holds an open day, during which visitors can view the orchids. Although they flower from mid-May to mid-June the flowers are usually at their best in late May so it is a wonderful opportunity to see these striking plants. Military orchids are long-lived and typically first put up an aerial stem in their fourth year, followed by a flowering spike several years later. The plant may then flower annually for a number of years, although many have a dormant period, missing one or more years of flowering. Even if you only have a passing interest in orchids, I would urge you to visit the reserve on the late May open day. You can get further information from Suffolk Wildlife Trust 01473-890089.