Sandy's Garden ... The World's Ugliest Orchid

Growing very happily in a pot on the east-facing windowsill of our utility room we have a truly glorious orchid.

By Sandy Simpson
Sunday, 27th December 2020, 10:10 am

As we view it, backlit against the window, the petals are truly translucent, giving an unphotographable quality to their gentle mauve colour. Not only is this orchid beautiful to behold, it is incredibly long-lived, producing flourish after flourish of flowers to brighten up its environs. Not being by any stretch of even my own imagination an orchidist … a knowledgeable orchid fancier.

I have no idea what manner of orchid it is, what its scientific name might be and what its common name might be – if it has one. We cannot remember whence it came but suspect it was bought in a garden centre because it was pretty and inexpensive. If that is correct, it has proved to be one of the best bargains ever.

It is not necessary, however, to have recourse to the displays of exotic plants in a garden centre to admire orchids. They are all around us right here in Scotland, growing in the wild, native to our homeland and part and parcel of our countryside.

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Falkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy Simpson

When the Public Local Inquiry into the controversial proposal to form a landfill site in Polmont … the site which was to become Avondale … was in full swing, the would-be developers presented their proposals for the eventual restoration of the site as public open space planted with all the native plant species which were to be found there.

I probably still have a copy of Mark Girdler’s report somewhere in my disorganised files: but I do remember my surprise at the number of different species of native Scottish orchids which were growing only a mile from my home.

He found examples of the Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride), the Heath Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata), the Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsia), the Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella), the Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea), the Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) and the Lesser Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera bifolia) – and I learn that there are many more orchid species which are native to Scotland.

None of them are as showy as those which we buy as decorative houseplants: but neither are any of them as ugly as a new species of orchid revealed among the 156 species of plants previously unknown to botanical science and now recognised and officially named by the Royal Botanic Garden Kew in 2020.

More than one-third of these ‘new’ plants are orchids; and they include one which has been given the name Gastrodia agnicellus, which was found in a forest in Madagascar. Its small flowers are brown, fleshy and grotesque; in a word, they are horrible.

This is the world’s ugliest orchid! It has neither leaves nor any other form of photosynthetic tissue and so cannot convert light energy into chemical energy that can later be released to fuel its activities.

Instead, it depends entirely on fungi for nutrition.

I have neither Common Spotted Orchids nor examples of the world’s ugliest orchid actually in my garden – but I’m pretty sure the former grew and will grow again at Avondale and that the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh may soon have examples of the latter.