Ghostly orchid escapes botanists

In 2009 a native plant that had never been seen before at Wisley was spotted in Wilson's Wood

Hear botanist and editor of The Plant Review, James Armitage, describe the bittersweet tale of the discovery of an unusual wild orchid at RHS Garden Wisley:
Listen now (starts at -4:36)

Neottia nidus-avisNeottia nidus-avis, the bird’s nest orchid is a saprophyte, deriving its nutrients from decaying organic matter. The ghostly pallor of the plant is a consequence of the absence of chlorophyll. It clings to life by draining the energy from decaying organic material.

Although scattered throughout much of the British Isles, the bird’s nest orchid is in decline and is now uncommon outside the south of England. Normally a denizen of beech woodland, it has probably been at Wisley a very long time, surviving unscathed the wholesale changes that the site has witnessed.

As with many of its relatives, the behaviour of Neottia nidus-avis can seem capricious, as though it is somehow aware of the diva status the name orchid bestows. The Wisley population has been seen to produce as many as 50 flower spikes in a year; when throwing a strop, as few as three.

Wisley map c1910
A map included with the original Wisley Flora of 1910 showing the area then covered by Wisley Garden. With careful examination it can be seen that large areas of the Garden as it is now known, including Battleston Hill, Portsmouth Field and the Arboretum, have yet to be added to the estate.

   Frederick James ChittendenHerbarium specimen of lamb's succory

This example of lamb’s succory, Arnoseris minima, (above, right), collected from Wisley in June 1922, is one of several with a similar provenance that are held in the RHS Herbarium, suggesting it was once common in the area. The last naturally growing British example of the species was found in Oxfordshire in 1971.

A card-mounted photograph (above, left) of Frederick James Chittenden (1873-1950) who devoted his working life to the RHS. He held a range of positions including Director of the School, Director of the Garden, Editor of the Journal of the RHS and Librarian. One of his greatest legacies is the four-volume Dictionary of Gardening and he was the author of a number of other works on gardening. It was under Chittenden’s auspices that the original Wisley Flora was published in 1910. He was awarded the OBE in 1950, shortly before his death.

RHS School of Horticulture, 1912
A photograph published in the RHS Gardens Club Journal in 1913 showing the 1912 School of Horticulture. Frederick Chittenden is in the centre of the second row from the front. Seated on his right is the imposing figure of S T Wright, Wisley’s inaugural Superintendent, who was the first RHS member of staff on site. The Chief Clerk, W D Cartwright, is standing in the third row, third from the right. By all accounts the most amiable of men, he supervised the collection of wildflowers by the students for the Wisley Flora. Three particular wildflower enthusiasts can be seen among the students: C C Titchmarsh (third row, fourth from left), J B Harris (third row, seventh from left) and G. B. Bassett (top row, second from left). Specimens collected by them can still be found in the Wisley Herbarium to this day.

Initals WDC in gate at WisleyThe initials W D C in the wrought iron gate of the Walled Garden at Wisley commemorating William Cartwright, for many years the Chief Clerk at Wisley, who oversaw the compilation of the Wisley Flora.

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