The Orchids of The Regent’s Park
Very few families of plant create such immediate excitement as orchids. Just the mention of the name conjures up images of rare blooms found only in a particular inaccessible valley, sought out by dedicated and wild-eyed plant-hunters who will stop at nothing to find them. This Hollywood-esque vision is at least partially fuelled by the fact that the Orchidaceae family is absolutely enormous - currently with more than 28,000 species, more than twice the number of bird species that we know about.
Their vast range of forms, and array of stunning colours, make orchids stunning additions to any habitat – not least in the heart of Central London. We therefore put in place habitat management measures to help them thrive when they do make an appearance.
A commitment to orchid protection
Our Conservation Officer Tony Duckett has been keeping a professionally sharp eye out for orchids in the parks for more than twenty years, and this year he’s spotted a finer display than in all his time at The Regent’s Park. Their presence isn’t a secret, but we don’t broadcast their locations and put in place habitat management measures to help them thrive.
Discover the different types of orchids
Regent’s Park is home to a variety of species of orchids. Dactylorhiza fuschsii, the common spotted orchid, emerges in The Regent’s Park occasionally, depending on weather conditions and the management of its grassland habitat. It announces itself with a spike of flowers that can stand up to sixty centimetres with colours ranging from white to pale purple. Pollinated by bumblebees and longhorn beetles, their display can last from June until August, again depending on weather conditions.
Ophrys apifera, the bee orchid, also pops up from time to time, though almost never two years in a row (it has a similar pattern of appearances in Richmond Park). Named for its flower’s distinctive bee-like shape, the evolutionary tale here is an extraordinary one. Showing preference for poor soils, it gains the nutrients it needs to survive through symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi (as do other orchids). The thread-like formations of the fungus link with its roots and deliver the plant minerals – this is so essential that without the fungus, the orchid’s seeds won’t germinate. The story above ground is fascinating too. The plant evolved its startling flower to fool the male of a particular species of bee into pollinating it by mimicking the form and smell of the female. The tragedy for bee orchids in England is that the bee in question doesn’t live here, so the plant is almost exclusively self-pollinating.
Lastly, Anacamptis pyramidalis, pyramidal orchid, also makes its home in The Regent’s Park, though Tony has seen specimens only five times in twenty years. It loves recently-disturbed soils and can grow in sunny spots almost anywhere, making it a great coloniser of roadside verges or recent works sites – and excitingly this year has also made appearances in Hyde Park and St James’s Park. Pollinated by butterflies and moths, the layered flowers are adapted to make it easy for pollen to attach to their proboscises in a process studied and described by Charles Darwin in his book Fertilisation of Orchids, published in 1862.
A surprisingly good year for orchids
With so many visitors over the last year, it’s surprising, at first glance, that the orchids have made such an excellent showing given the number of feet which have passed over the grasslands of the park. But favourable weather and a conscious commitment to adapt the way we treat areas of grassland have helped give rise to a record population. We hope to continue to help these beauties, and the insects who coexist with them, thrive in The Regent’s Park and beyond.