Hunting for the Gruffalo

Searching for an orchid with Julia Donaldson, wild flower lover and celebrated author of 'The Gruffalo'

November 08 2016 - 16:24

As a self-confessed orchid-fanatic, I’ve seen a good many of our British orchid species over the years. But I’m no twitcher - I don’t race around the country adding plants and flowers I've not yet seen to my ‘life-list’ just for the sake of it. I’m much more interested in just wandering around interesting places and sites to see what I can find. For me, the real joy comes from the unexpected finds, the surprise discovery of something wonderful, regardless of its rarity.

But occasionally, you have to break your own rules, especially when you get a chance hunt for a new orchid... with one of our most famous authors.  

And so I found myself on Castle Hill national nature reserve just outside Brighton with Julia Donaldson, author of best-selling children’s books The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man. We were filming an edition of Treasures of the British Library for Sky Arts, in which cultural icons select books from the archives with special meaning for them. A very keen lover of wild flowers, Julia had selected Gerarde’s Herbal (1597) as one of her treasures, and we were hunting for an orchid pictured in the Herbal that neither of us had seen before.

As the name suggests, early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) flowers very early - it was only late April - and its small green and brownish-purple flowers were difficult to spot in the still winter-browned grass.

We combed the hillside where we’d been told they were growing, but without luck. Then, I decided to use an old plant-hunters trick. I changed our perspective. Throwing ourselves down into the grass (Julia was very game and we both fought off an urge to roll downhill like a pair of children) we pressed our faces against the turf and scanned the horizon. There – a few meters away – we could at last see a small flower spike pushing proudly above the ground.

We might not have found a Gruffalo, but the orchids were beguiling and beautiful, and it was wonderful to share this moment of utter joy with Julia (and add one more to my list!)

Treasures of the British Library with Julia Donaldson will be shown on Sky Arts tonight (Tuesday 8th November) at 9.00pm 

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