The Reserve in Bloom

Posted: July 04th 2018

by Andy Bloomfield

The pinewoods at Holkham are renowned for their annual show of wild Foxgloves
The pinewoods at Holkham are renowned for their annual show of wild Foxgloves

Most visiting naturalists that come to the reserve seem to be in search of our prolific birdlife yet there is much more to enthuse about and early summer is a great time to search for other wildlife. This year June has seen a riot of colour take over the dunes and in the woods as many plants have emerged and are at their finest.

One spectacle that always creates stares of wonderment and whoops of joy is the swathe of Foxgloves that grow under the older pines beyond Meales House. These colourful stately plants come in a great variety of shades, varying from pure white through various hues of pink to deep purple. Stand in the right spot in the right light and the colour stretches off into the distance through the understory of the open wood. This annual attraction is at its best in mid June but was not always such a feature of the wood. As the wood has matured so more light has been able to penetrate and allowed the foxgloves to establish themselves and proliferate. What started out as a few plants 20 years ago has since developed into the fantastic show that we have today. The great tubular bell-like blooms are beloved of bumblebees in their constant search for nectar yet the plant became equally as valuable to the medicine and drug industry following on from a history of ancient traditional herbal remedies. Despite being highly toxic, sparing quantities of extracts from the leaves were used as a remedy for sore throats, catarrh and as a compress for swelling, ulcers and bruising. Its main quality was in its use for curing an accumulation of fluid in the body’s tissues (known as dropsy). The right amount could prove beneficial yet the wrong amount could be fatal! Further research allowed it to be utilised in heart regulating drugs and indeed parts of its chemical make-up are still used in such medicines today.

The older low lying areas of the dunes often are a balze of yellow wild flowers. These are Bird's-foot Trefoils.
The older low lying areas of the dunes often are a blaze of yellow wild flowers. These are Bird’s-foot Trefoils.

Away from the wood, the older ‘grey’ dunes have taken on a far more vibrant appearance. The yellow flower heads of the various dandelion-related species are particularly abundant yet most are very tricky to tell apart. These are the hawkbits and hawkweeds, Cat’s-ear and Goa’ts-beard. As tricky as they are to identify, you will not miss them! Walk through the older dunes closer to the wood edge and you will soon be amidst a carpet of yellow. Smaller and more subtle Biting Stonecrop (a succulent of bare ground), frail tangles of Lady’s Bedstraw and low lying mats of Bird’s-foot Trefoil all add to the yellow profusion of the dunes. In sharp contrast are various members of the orchid family, most of which are pink or purple. By far the most common (as it is each year) has been the Southern Marsh Orchid. Standing up to 70cm tall it is our largest species and it has appeared in large concentrations all over the reserve where conditions are right. It prefers the edges of wet grassland and damp dune slacks. One particular spot close to Overy board walk developed so much over the years that it has become locally known as ‘the orchid valley’. Up until 2013 the area was magnificent, a mix of yellow Bird’s-foot Trefoil and the purple of the orchids in a low lying spot some 150 metres long. Unfortunately when the sea surge of 2013 broke through the orchids temporarily disappeared, taking until now to become fully established again. Whilst numbers there are on the increase they have yet to reach pre-2013 densities but hopefully that will happen if current conditions prevail. What has been most encouraging of late has been the rediscovery of a smaller more robust orchid the colour of red wine; the Early Marsh Orchid. Some orchids come in different sub species or forms and the one we have found is a race known as coccinea. It is very much a coastal species preferring dunes or slumped cliffs and in Norfolk has a limited distribution centred at Holme (in the dunes) and north east Norfolk (on cliffs). It was found here at Overy for the first time in 2010 and started to rapidly increase until the flood had its negative effect, so to find six plants again this year has been most gratifying. Contrary to its name (Early Marsh Orchid) this race is actually late in merging, usually coming into flower as the neighbouring Southern Marsh Orchids are disappearing!

The rare subspecies of Early Masrh Orchid, known by its latin name 'coccinea'
The rare subspecies of Early Marsh Orchid, known by its Latin name ‘coccinea’
The far more numerous Southern Marsh Orchids were particularly abundant this year
The far more numerous Southern Marsh Orchids were particularly abundant this year

Another couple of dune species that seem to have had a good year are the Bee and Pyramidal orchids. Both species are very distinct and relatively easy to find scattered throughout all the dunes and an increase in numbers this year is quite definitely as a result of the rabbit shortage we have at present. Rabbits truly are the architects of the dunes, grazing many areas and keeping the vegetation short. This can very good for many rare invertebrates that love short and bare ground but at the detriment to the orchids. Our good and bad orchid years in the past can really be mirrored alongside changing numbers of rabbits. In a ‘bad’ year, species such as Bee and Pyramidals can be really hard to find and it is only by scouring through taller privet patches that rabbits tend to ignore, can these exotic orchids be found. That has not been the case this year so if you want to have a go at finding some beautiful dune flowers there is still time to go searching !

The distinctive Bee Orchid, named after its flower's resemblance to a bumblebee
The distinctive Bee Orchid, named after its flower’s resemblance to a bumblebee
Pyramidal Orchids have also been in particular abundance this year; a reflection of the low numbers of rabbits on the reserve
Pyramidal Orchids have also been in particular abundance this year; a reflection of the low numbers of rabbits on the reserve

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