Once the stuff of myth and legend in botanical circles, the Military Orchid has become much easier to see in recent years. And the season to find one is fast approaching.
35 years ago a friend gave me a copy of Jocelyn Brooke’s ‘The Orchid Trilogy’, a trio of stories one of which is entitled ‘The Military Orchid’. Published in 1948, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it is a delightfully written account of middle class and military life, laced with bittersweet humour, a poignant nostalgia for things lost, and a whiff of the ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. But as the book’s title suggests, the central theme is Brooke’s obsession with finding the Military Orchid Orchis militaris. It tells of a quest that spanned three decades, with endless searches through woodlands in south-east England, following faint leads with little more than instinct and dedicated fervour to guide him. His passion for the wildlife of south-east England eventually lead to Jocelyn Brooke becoming a founder member of the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation.
Above: The flower spike of the Military Orchid has a regimented structure and flowers tinged with purple, pink and white.
In the late 1940s, when ‘The Orchid Trilogy’ was written, the Military Orchid was a major rarity, as indeed it was when I was given the book as a present in the 1980s. The timing coincided with my own developing interest in orchids and in due course I too embarked on my own quest to find the elusive militaris.
Above: A splendid Military Orchid, the star of the show at the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust’s Homefield Wood reserve.
Although the era pre-dated the internet, information on species whereabouts was much more readily available than in Brooke’s day. Nevertheless, sites for rare orchid species remained closely guarded secrets and rather than find my own I had to resort to being escorted by the late Francis Rose to see one, being sworn to secrecy as a condition for being granted this privilege.
Above: With a bit of imagination, the flowers of a Military Orchid bear a fanciful resemblance to a military gentleman from a past era, complete with regimental helmet.
Nowadays two things have changed. The rise of the web means there are few secrets left and if you do a bit of searching online and you will find where go without too much trouble. But Military Orchids are easier to see too. Gone are the days when isolated plants lived secure lives inside military-strength rabbit- and deer-proof fencing. Good woodland and grassland management in the Home Counties has worked wonders and in a few select places you see swathes of this magnificent plant.
Above: Seen in isolation, the Military Orchid has a stately appearance.