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Finding the Fen Orchid a new home

Plantlife botanist takes one of our rarest orchids home for the night, in a bid to save them from extinction.

February 04 2016

Fen orchid ©

Fen orchid ©

Many people take their work home with them, and for most that means bringing home a laptop or phone. But for Plantlife’s Tim Pankhurst, it means bringing home some endangered fen orchids (Liparis loeselii) and babysitting them overnight!

As strange as this may sound, it’s actually part of a pioneering new trial to see if the rare fen orchid can survive transplantation into new locations in Norfolk and Suffolk. Currently fen orchids only grow in the wild in three sites in England, and to ensure they don’t become extinct, it’s vital they recolonise new areas – but to do this they need Plantlife’s help. 

Plantlife’s Tim Pankhurst says “We need to reintroduce fen orchids back into sites where they once grew, but first we need to test they can survive the move. I’ve therefore carefully selected some tiny fen orchid plants that I’ll carefully uproot – each on its own little cushion of moss – and bring them home sealed in special containers. These tiny VIPs (Very Important Plants) are very vulnerable and highly sensitive to changes in their environment but if they don’t succumb to the trauma of moving, drying or overheating overnight I’ll know that our rescue mission can go ahead.”  

Above: Tim carefully removes a fen orchid from the site.

In the wild, most fen orchid sites have been lost through drainage and changes in fen management. Unlike other British orchids, they have very few roots and instead live perched on little mounds of moss – more like the tropical epiphytic orchids that grow on rainforest trees, well above the ground. This makes them especially sensitive to drying out. If the fen orchids survive, Tim will plant them out again and see how they grow next year. If all is well the experiment will pave the way for more fen orchids to be relocated to former sites in Norfolk over the next 2 years. “The new locations will be top secret as fen orchid is so rare we can’t risk it revealing its new homes - it could pose a security risk”. 

Above: Job done - Tim (and fen orchids) relax at home.

Fabulous Fen – why this orchid is worth saving:

  • The fen orchid is one of the most threatened wild plants in Europe and is listed on Annex II of the Habitats and Species Directive, one of only nine flowering plants in Britain afforded this level of protection.
  • It’s only found growing in the wild in the Norfolk Broads fens and the sand dunes of South Wales and North Devon where Plantlife has been carrying out urgent conservation work to restore the threatened habitats here.
  • In England, fen orchid only grows in the most species-rich fen vegetation, serving as a barometer of their health and the effectiveness of the protection we afford to our most valuable wildlife sites. 
  • In the summer, the pretty greenish yellow orchid can grow up to 25 cm tall and flowers in June and July.