Interview with Leif Bersweden, author of The Orchid Hunter: A young botanist's search for happiness
Note -All images on this page credit - Leif Bersweden. 1. Leif Bersweden 2. The Orchid Hunter front cover 3. Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) 4. Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
14th February 2018.
1. This is a question you probably are asked quite regularly, what made you become so interested in orchids?
It certainly is, but always a good place to start! I’ve been interested in plants since I was knee-high and could barely tell a daisy from a tree. It sounds cliché but it was only upon encountering my first orchid – a bee orchid – that the particular fascination with this group of plants took hold. I love how diverse they are (when you’ve got flowers that look like monkeys you know you’re onto something cool) and was particularly struck by the bee orchid, whose flowers look like little bees. It was this overlap between two worlds that had previously seemed so different to me that really grabbed my attention.
2. Your book, The Orchid Hunter: a young botanists search for happiness, is all about a trip you made throughout Great Britain and Ireland to see all 52 native types of Orchids growing wild. Can you tell us a bit about your adventure. Did you do it in stages, or all in one go? How did you plan the trip, what were the challenges along the way?
Yes, not your average gap year! So in a general sense the trip planned itself: there were 52 orchids to be found, the first of which begin to appear in April and the last flowers in September. The specifics were much harder to plan for, however. Each orchid flowers at a different point in the spring/summer and for different lengths of time. So while the common spotted orchid will appear in June and can often still be found in flower at the end of July, other rarer species might only flower for a few days. Because of this my summer was spent driving up and down the country, chasing each species as it came into flower. The greatest challenge was the weather: a long winter meant the first orchids weren’t in flower until May, putting all my carefully laid plans out of sync. This delay to the flowering season made it much more difficult to predict when species were going to appear, particularly when I was travelling to far-flung places like the Outer Hebrides to find some of them – I couldn’t always rely on other people to tell me when things were happening!
3. Can you tell us a bit about orchids of the British Isles and their conservation status? Which type of wild orchid is the rarest?
Despite having an aura of rarity, our native orchids are not all difficult to find. Some of them are actually very easy to discover and often grow abundantly; the common spotted orchid, for example, or broad-leaved helleborines. But as with any group of plants you do have some real rarities too. The rarest species in Britain is called the ghost orchid. It’s small and pale lilac-brown, growing in thick leaf litter in the woods of Herefordshire and Buckinghamshire. It has been reported to flower any time between April and October and the flower usually only lasts for three days – unless the slugs get it first. Living up to its name, the last two confirmed sightings of it came in 2009 and 1987. It hasn’t been seen here since then, and so for that reason I never included it on my list of species to find: had I done so I would have been setting myself up for almost guaranteed failure. Despite this, I spent hours and hours searching for it during that summer, in the hope of finding that bonus number 53…
4. Was there any wild location on your travels that you liked best, and if so can you tell us a bit about it?
Yes, the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides was one of my favourite places, and certainly the wildest landscape I visited. I had driven more than 700 miles to get there, so really felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. I remember having that overwhelming feeling of being completely alone. It was so quiet there, with the exception of waves rolling gently onto the beach and waders whistling as they whizzed by. The bright white sand was bent into a long curve around the turquoise sea and backed by the calcium-rich grassland called machair which was overflowing with orchids. A truly wonderful place, and one that I really look forward to visiting again!
5. Apart from Orchids was there any other botanical and wildlife highlights during your travels?
I’m so pleased you’ve asked this! I’ve always loved wildlife, and wild plants in particular, so this trip offered so much more than just the orchids. My favourite place was the Burren in the west of Ireland where I was tripping over an abundance of rare plant species, the best of which were the bright blue spring gentians. I’d been desperate to see these since I was little and first come across them in my wildflower book. The other moment which springs to mind was standing in a meadow of thistles in the Brecon Beacons while small pearl-bordered fritillaries flicked and looped around me. Incidentally the wood bitter-vetch there was exceptional too. Sorry, I’ll stop now…
6. Do you have a favourite orchid, if so which one, and why?
My favourite orchid is the bee orchid, and it has been since I first found it aged seven. It’s part of a group of orchids that have evolved to exploit the sexual desire of male bees. To the male bee the flower looks, smells and feels exactly like a virgin female bee. The male sees this and gets pretty excited, alights on the flower and attempts to mate with it, and in doing so picks up pollen on the back of its neck. Eventually it gets frustrated by the lack of action and flies away, but immediately falls for the ruse all over again when it encounters another plant some way away. While attempting to mate with the new flower, it deposits the pollen, ensuring pollination for the orchid. It’s an ingenious system, and the entire fraud is masterminded by a plant which is really cool. The bee orchid has subsequently abandoned this strategy though, and now pollinates itself, possibly because its insect pollinator species has become extinct.
7. Are any native orchids commercially available, that can be grown in residential gardens?
If you’re interested in growing some of our native orchids in your garden, I’d recommend joining the Hardy Orchid Society (http://www.hardyorchidsociety.org.uk) who can advise on how to go about doing this properly. While I’ve never tried it myself, I believe some marsh orchids and helleborines can be grown in cultivation in residential gardens. It’s illegal to try digging up orchids from the wild; it would almost certainly end in failure too as they really hate disturbance! Trevor Dines at Plantlife has some advice about creating your own wildflower meadow in your garden, which is a great way to grow wild plants and – hopefully – some orchids (http://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/wildflower_garden/how_to_grow_a_wildflower_meadow/)
8. Is there anything that agricultural landowners can do to make their land orchid friendly?
Leaving strips along field margins for wildflowers would certainly help, although it is unlikely (but not impossible) that you would get orchids. To be honest the best way would be to set aside a field and create a wildflower meadow (see Trevor Dines above), which would get colonised by common species over time.
9. Are you interested in orchids that can be grown as houseplants, do you have any?
I’m afraid I don’t; I think a big part of my obsession with wild orchids is the excitement of coming across something so beautiful completely unexpectedly – particularly surrounded by nature!
10. What wild Orchid would you like to see growing in its natural habitat, that is not found in the British Isles?
Probably the mirror orchid (Ophrys speculum) which is a relative of the bee orchid and can be found in the Mediterranean. The lip of the flower has a shiny blue surface, almost reflective it’s so smooth, surrounded by furry reddish hairs. That would be a cool one to come across.
11. You are currently doing a PhD at Kew Gardens, what exactly are you studying and what is your botanical ambition after you finish?
So I’m studying hybridization in four orchid species: man, military, monkey and lady. They all have flowers which look like little humans (they have arms and legs) and can be found both here in England and on mainland Europe. They all look very different, but when they grow in the same place they can’t keep their hands off one another and they reproduce together. The offspring are intermediates, looking half like one parent species and half like the other. These hybrid offspring are fertile and readily reproduce with each other and with both parents (it’s basically a big orchid orgy), creating large populations of orchids intermediate between the two original parent species. My PhD in one sentence is this: I’m trying to find out why these four species remain as four discrete entities, rather than just merging into one big hybrid ‘super species’, if you like. I haven’t quite worked out what I’m going to do once I finish in two and a half years’ time, but I really want to make botany more popular with the general public – whether that’s through writing, teaching, research or something else I don’t know.
12. Do you have any tips for any budding orchid hunters. Where can they start?
Orchid hunting is so easy to get into (once you find your first you’ll be hooked!). And it’s for anyone of any age or background – and it’s free! I’d recommend joining the Hardy Orchid Society or the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (https://bsbi.org/) for information. Your local Wildlife Trust nature reserves would be a good way to start too. If you’re on Twitter, get involved with Wildflower Hour (there’s a hashtag #wildflowerhour) which occurs between 8-9pm every Sunday evening and people share their wildflower findings from the previous week – there are always a lot of orchid photos floating around, particular when they’re in flower between April and September. Start with
the commoner species that you’re likely to come across without much guidance – e.g. common spotted orchids, common twayblades, early purple orchids and broad-leaved helleborines. Then as you get into it you’ll probably find yourself going further afield to find some of the rarer ones. And who knows you might end up trying to find them all in one summer!
Twitter page HERE
You can buy The Orchid Hunter in any major bookshop or online.
Amazon Book page (printed version £10.04, kindle £6.64) HERE