Wednesday, 9 July 2014

114 million orchids in the slipstreams of our cars

Andy Byfield
Landscape Conservation Manager

I guess I could be voted Britain’s worst driver during the summer months, for when at the wheel my eyes are invariably affixed to our glorious flower-covered road verges, and all-too-rarely on the road ahead.  A recent distraction has been the fabulous displays of pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) across our warmer, more lime-rich parts of the countryside.  Last week I spotted them on every verge and roundabout on the outskirts of Gloucester, but a particular favourite are the pyramidals that adorn the Ilminster bypass, the gateway to the south-west, for those hauling westwards along the A303.

The Ilminster bypass was opened in 1988, and today drivers pass dense displays of the orchids on warm, south facing road cuttings along the few miles of this route, roughly 25 years after the habitat was created.  I ‘guestimated’ roughly 1100 flowering plants along the short few miles earlier this year, but suspect that there are many, many more (the Ilminster bypass is a notorious accident blackspot, so I cast only half an eye on the verges).  The great thing is that they are being managed properly – being allowed to flower and seed, before the grass cutters ‘go in’ to clean up.

Of course, the orchids and other flowers make my car journeys immeasurably more pleasurable, but in a landscape ever more devoid of colourful grassland, these verge refuges become ever more important for myriad flowers, insects, mammals, birds and much more.  Now, here is a heartening thought about Britain’s changing attitude to road verge management: on average, a typical pyramidal orchid produces 65 flowers, of which 80% set viable seed (information so far from the orchid books).  If we make the conservative assumption that each developing seed pod produces 2000 seeds (plump bee orchid pods can contain as many as 26,000!), then the Ilminster colony will produce a staggering 114 million seeds this year, to be carried in your and my slipstreams as we head away on holiday.

I am thrilled to say that the Highways Agency division that manages the Ilminster bypass verges do so very much with wildlife in mind: they do the essential verge cuts, but they do them late in the year (often even in winter).  But how very sad that so many of our verges are cut down in the prime, when plants are in full flower, destroying literally in a single swipe so much potential for bringing colour back to the countryside.

If you like the idea of 114 million orchids on our verges, why not add your voice add your voice to our campaign for better management?


  1. We had two bee orchids appearing from nowhere in our conservation area at the Cambridge University Press site in Cambridge last year, to everyone's great delight. No sign so far this year, but we live in hope!

  2. The orchids were marvellous here in Kent too - hundreds, maybe thousands, of pyramidal orchids just around the M20 junctions at Folkestone alone.
    The central reservation up from the port of Dover is a real nature reserve of sea lavender, rock samphire and other salt-tolerant plants.
    Reduced spraying and sensible cutting is giving us a more enjoyable drive.