Wildlife Gardening in May

N.B. If your new to David’s monthly column then please be sure to read the ‘setting-the-scene’ opening piece first.

Wild Orchids

© David Beeson: Wild Orchid

© David Beeson: Wild Orchid

When the calendar shows ‘May’ wildlife enthusiasts think ‘orchids’. Certainly some will flower before this date but now is the main time to start searching.

The early season and very rare early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) is at the northern extreme of its European range in Britain (it and its near relatives are common in Southern Spain and France) and only likes the warmest locations. To spot it for yourselves you may aim for the Channel Tunnel spoil heaps in Kent, but I would travel to Dorset – to the cliffs around Worth Matravers. Here, growing amidst the limestone quarries on the charismatic coastline, you’ll certainly encounter this treasure.

The plant shows pseudocopulation – where the flower’s shape and aroma mimics that of a fertile female bee and understandably attracts males. The insect attempts to mate with the flower and so picks up pollen to pass onto the stigma of another flower.

Plants of this Ophrys-type [see photos] are widely dispersed around the country with bee orchids (O. apifera) just reaching the Scottish border. All members of the Ophrys genus have the same ability to persuade amorous males to disperse their pollen.

While we usually consider orchids uncommon, given a good environment, numbers can pick up rapidly. Green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) occur in huge numbers in one local nature reserve and pyramidals (A. pyramidalis) are expanding their population in my own garden rapidly and are quite common here.

The news that the ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) has been re-found, after being declared extinct, shows that some orchids are very rare indeed and that they can hide away from human eyes for many years. In this case the plant is saprophytic and bears no green leaves – so making it especially difficult to locate.
Visitors to my own garden are somewhat surprised when I show them twayblade orchids (Neottia ovata) growing in the meadow – for these are not the showy flowers that most people expect. This is a green-flowered species and is often overlooked. Yet the flowers exhibit all the orchid characteristics, but on an unassuming scale. Bird’s nest, frog, man, bog and musk orchids also challenge the searching botanist.

© David Beeson: Wild Orchid

© David Beeson: Wild Orchid

The book I use to aid my orchid identification and understanding is: Orchids of the British Isles by Michael Foley & Sidney Clarke.

Here’s my provisional orchid-viewing list for 2010. Perhaps you could produce one for yourself?

April / May Early Spider Orchid Dorset
May Early Purple Local-Harewood Forest
  Green-winged Local nature reserve
June Helleborines Hampshire wood, nature reserve
  Spotted, Lady’s Slipper & Bee Own garden
  Fly Local nature reserve
July Twayblade, Pyramidal, Marsh Own garden
  Marsh Helleborine, Burnt, Frog North Hampshire, nature reserve
  Butterfly, Fragrant Local downland
August Lady’s-tresses North Hampshire
?Will I have time? Bog New Forest

If you would like to be blown over with orchids visit Southern Spain in late March, the Cevennes or Vercors in France in May. NatureTrek run courses there or you can look at their web site for the optimal time to visit and do it for yourself!

Exotic Plants for Wildlife

© David Beeson: Hyacinth

© David Beeson: Hyacinth

While I advocate filling a garden with native plant species if possible, I also grow non-natives (exotics) for both their beauty and wildlife value. Some plants are, however, better for wildlife than others.

As we have discussed before, most perennial non-grasses have toxic parts to their structure to dissuade herbivores from eating too much. Cyanide, tannin and various other unpleasant chemicals are used. Small herbivorous animals need their specific host plants in order to grow and if these are not grown they cannot survive. So camellias and rhododendrons, for example, are usually uneaten by UK small herbivores.

Plants that provide non-toxic pollen and / or nectar to encourage cross-pollination will be fine for wildlife. Daphnes, hyacinths [photo], pulmonarias [photo] and wood tulips (Tulipa sylvestris) provide good spring nectar when little else may be available.

Double-flowered plants often have much a more difficult access for consumers, so are of poor wildlife value. So avoid buying such plants.

Plants with unusual fruit colours are largely ignored, so represent poor wildlife value. Purchase cotoneasters, holly and pyracanthas with traditional red berries.

© David Beeson: Exotic Pulmonaria

© David Beeson: Exotic Pulmonaria

The golden rule is plant: 1) Plant British natives, found in your own area if possible, 2) Non-local natives, 3) Non-GB species of a wild UK-genus, 4) Single-flowered plants that give nectar or pollen at times when local plants lacking, 5) Sod it – I’m going to grow a plant because I like it!


Now’s the time for a snake hunt. Remember they may have exceedingly poor hearing but can feel a footfall from a long distance. Slow, gentle walking is needed. In Southern England I visit Martin Down NNR, Dorset cliffs and New Forest.


Amazingly the one billion UK painted lady butterflies largely passed us by last summer. My best suggestion as to why this happened is that Forest Edge is located near the top of a shallow hill and the migration occurred along the river valleys. I’m however hopeful of plenty of delightful lepidopterans this year. Last year the butterflies reached the north of Scotland, Iceland and Finland. Just a pity some didn’t stop in my garden!

The winter breeding grounds of painted lady butterflies is south of the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, near Taroudant, and this last winter has seen good rainfall in Southern Europe and parts of North Africa. All indications are for a good hatching of new adults there this spring and another northern migration.

Early season insects are in good numbers so far with more than average bumblebees, butterflies and bee flies about – so the harsh winter has not had too much effect on them.

Have a good spring

David is an ex-lecturer in Environmental / Biological Sciences.
He has written for most of the UK gardening magazines, including the RHS.
Forest Edge’s garden has been widely covered in magazines and has been featured in a BBC’s Gardeners’ World special.
He also maintains a blog at https://nwhwildlife.org/