Orchid hunting at Achmelvich (part 1)

July 26th 2020

Orchid hunting at Achmelvich (part 1)

Back in 1943 a distinguished botanist, Mr A.J. Willmott of the British Museum (Natural History), was invited by Mrs M.S. Campbell of the Botanical Exchange Club (now the B.S.B.I.) ‘ to spend the latter part of September at the fishing village of Lochinver…remote in the south-west corner of Sutherland…an area that has been very little visited by botanists’. ‘A subsequent invitation permitted further collections to be made in 1944, somewhat earlier in September’.  ‘The collections were made on a series of short journeys by bicycle from Lochinver’, although ‘on a few occasions it was possible to go further afield, owing to the availability of vacant seats in cars making essential journeys’.

These quotes are from the delightfully informative paper by Willmott and Campbell, entitled Autumn botanising at Lochinver (West Sutherland), published in the Report of the Botanical Exchange Club for 1943-44 (1946), pp. 820-833, which is reviewed in the Flora of Assynt (2002), pp.53-54.

Amongst their many discoveries were two orchids ‘new’ to Assynt, narrow-leaved helleborine Cephalanthera longifolia and broad-leaved helleborine Epipactis helleborine, both noted ‘at the side of the Achmelvich road not far from Achadantuir’ (NC0624-0824), where they are still to be found.  Narrow-leaved helleborine occurs here at its northernmost locality in the British Isles and broad-leaved helleborine at one of only four localities in the north of Scotland, all in West Sutherland.  The shape of their leaves readily distinguishes them.

Today’s status

It has been our habit to visit the area in the spring to see how these two rarities are faring, and we did so again on 28thMay 2020.  Our first stop was amongst the aspens between the road and the loch about 300m west of the Achmelvich Bridge, where we found, somewhat to our surprise, over 20 spikes of the narrow-leaved helleborine in full flower (photo 1).  With them was one plant, just in leaf, of broad-leaved helleborine (photo 2), which flowers later in the year, but we subsequently found a further nine plants of the latter species on the northern side of the road.  Our hope is to photograph the flowers of this species in due course.

We then drove a little further west to the parking area at the bottom of the drive of Ian and Alson Yates’s house on the Achmelvich road, where both species also occur.  We were greeted by Alson, who showed us several splendid examples of the narrow-leaved helleborine (photos 3-4), some of which Ian had protected from grazing with chicken-wire cylinders, together with further plants, in leaf, of broad-leaved helleborine.

An unexpected discovery

We were, however, stopped in our tracks by two spikes of flowers on the edge of the parking area, not far from a hazel.  They appeared to lack chlorophyll, being light brown all over, and our first wild guess, from a distance, was that they were one of the broomrapes Orobanche sp., which are not recorded from Assynt.  On closer inspection, we realised that they were two large spikes of bird’s-nest orchid Neottia nidus-avis (photos 5-6), only previously known to occur locally in woodland on the shore of Loch Dubh at Ardroe, over a kilometre to the south-east.  All the orchids having been duly admired by three local equestrians and photographed, we then moved on to the machair at Achmelvich, of which more elsewhere.

On 1st June, we visited the woodland at Loch Dubh (NC0723), to see if we could re-locate the bird’s-nest orchidwhere it was first found, in 1981, by the late R.E.C. (Chris) Ferreira, a very accomplished botanist.  Armed with detailed information from Claire Belshaw, we did indeed find four flowering spikes amongst well-vegetated boulder scree high in the eastern part of the woodland, together with the remains of a fruiting spike from 2019 (photos 7-9).  It was also Claire who in 2002 re-found this orchid in the oak/hazel woodland at the Loch a’Mhuilinn NNR (NC1639), its only other site in the North-West.

On a biological note, bird’s-nest orchid was once thought to live as a ‘saprophyte’ i.e. on decaying plant matter.  More recently it has been discovered that its roots contain the hyphae of a fungus Sebacina dimitica, which is, in turn, a mycorrhizal associate of broad-leaved trees such as hazel.

We have illustrated this account with a selection of photographs, including some by David Haines, whom we told about the orchids shortly afterwards.


Ian Evans and Gwen Richards

Part 2 of this adventure can be found here

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