The Helleborines are a branch of the Orchid family, there are two genera, the Epipactis genus and the Cephalanthera genus. Species from both occur in the Wye valley and the commonest is this one the Broad-leaved Helleborine. Having said that no orchids are particularly common, they are not in the same league as say Ragwort, or Cow Parsley.
As the name suggests this species has quite wide leaves, especially the lowest leaf which is more or less round. As you go up the stem the leaves become longer and thinner. Also the leaves are arranged in a spiral around the stem. This is important because the Narrow-lipped Helleborine has quite similar flowers but its leaves are arranged in two opposite rows up the stem. The Violet Helleborine is another species which could cause confusion, indeed it recently did…. for me. But then I can get confused fairly easily. Anyway the Violet Helleborine also has a spiral leaf arrangement but its green parts are usually suffused with a purple/violet. Just to make life difficult the depth of this purple colour varies and in some specimens can be quite light and thus not that noticeable!
On the photo above you can see the pollinia, this is the white object which is fairly central. Many orchids have two pollinia but this species just has one. The pollinia is where the pollen is located and it gets detached from the flower and stuck to the head of an insect and thus gets moved onto another flower and so cross pollination occurs. In the case of this orchid the insect vector is a wasp. The wasps visit the flowers to drink the nectar which is the dark brown stuff immediately below the pollinia. Quite often this nectar has fermented and is rich in alcohol. This results in the wasps getting ‘ratted’ and sometimes after visiting several flowers they will fall from a flower in a drunken stupor… A bit like a Friday night pub crawl… I suppose?
Between the pollinia and the nectar is an off white, light cream area, this is called the ‘viscidium’ which is as its name suggest viscid and it ruptures when the wasp visits and sticks the pollinia to the wasps head. Amazing what goes on, and this is not the end of it. This orchid has a complex and varied relationship with different fungi in the soil, possibly the truffle type of fungi. It may also be a slight partial parasite on some trees. All this is very clever but sometimes too clever for its own good. Over specialisation and too much reliance on other specific species can backfire especially if that other species declines or dissapears.
The flower colours vary quite a lot some being almost red/purple and others almost cream. Below is a slide show of some that I have photographed recently.
Well I think that is enough for now, keep your eye out for these flowers in July and August, they are supposed to like Beech trees but I have seen them in area of Oak with not a Beech in sight.
To check out other wildflowers found in the woods of the Wye valley and Ninewells wood click Woodland Wildflowers of the Wye valley and Monmouthshire.