Evolution amongst the orchids has resulted in many species going to extreme lengths in search of special niches in which to grow, coupled with very specialised relationships with insects and other creatures for successful pollination.
Our own Bird’s-nest Orchid, Neottia nidus-avis is no exception, this orchid has dispensed with the ability to produce its own food through photosynthesis as it has no green leaves.
The Bird’s-nest Orchid is often classed as a saprophyte - a plant which derives its nutrients from decaying plant material, or it could be classed as a parasite, as it obtains its food from its association with a fungus without returning anything obvious to the host fungus.
It is not exactly clear if the fungus with which the Bird’s-nest Orchid grows is living by breaking down accumulated humus such as wind blown heaps of dead leaves, or if the fungus is one of the mycorrhizal types which lives in association with living trees such as Beech or Birch, where the fungi releases nutrients into the soil for the trees to absorb and in return the fungus receives its goodness from the tree, some of which is then taken up by the orchid, it may be that the orchid gets its nutrients from both sources. In either instance the orchid cannot survive without the aid of a fungus.
The Bird’s-nest Orchid does not have any leaves with chlorophyll and the stems and flowers are a light brown in colour.
The flower spike grows about a foot tall and can be found in early summer, they are sweet scented and attract insects for their pollination. If insect pollination fails it is possible for the flowers to self pollinate themselves.
The fine seeds are scattered in the wind, germination is a critical time as the tiny new seedlings must grow where the correct fungus is present and must get attached to the fungus within a few days of germination, there is little food stored in an orchid seed and the tiny new orchid will soon perish if it has not found the correct host.
If it does make a successful attachment then it may take up to ten years for a new orchid seedling to grow underground, un-noticed, until it has grown large enough and strong enough to flower, a slow and precarious existence. The root system is made up of swollen, fungus infected roots, which are said to resemble a
roughly built birds nest, hence the common name Bird’s-nest Orchid.
The Bird’s-nest Orchid can be found growing wild over much of Europe, western Asia and North Africa. In the British Isles is is most frequent in the Beech forest in the south of England, in Scotland it is quite rare but can be found scattered thinly over much of the country.
I knew of a wood near Ayton where it grew, but it is now lost there through felling and is now as far as I know extinct in Berwickshire.
The next meeting of the Scottish Wildlife Trust in Duns Parish Church Hall is tonight, January 7, at 7.30pm when Sarah Eno will talk about ‘Soils and Plant Life:The Borders’. Friends and visitors are welcome.