Nature paints a vivid canvas of many colours around our feet as we walk Sheskinmore each summer – dazzling us with displays of purple and pink orchids and carpets of white, blue and yellow flowers of so many species.
Come August colours begin to change and this year by the middle of the month most of the more flamboyant orchids had begun to fade, to be replaced by great drifts of white Grass-of-Parnassus, meadows of Devil’s-bit Scabious and the noisy, dry stems of Yellow Rattle.
But look more closely and you will find the poor cousin of those bright orchids, the Frog Orchid (Dactylorhiza veridis), hiding its rather drab flowers close to the ground. It can appear in good numbers at Sheskinmore in all its colour variations from a yellowy-green to a tint of red not unlike the stalk of rhubarb.
The Frog Orchid is small – usually less than 25cm but sometimes up to 35cm – and difficult to spot among the profusion of growth. But it’s always worth the hunt and in Sheskinmore it is actually quite easily found.
Entering from the gate at Kiltoorish, walk the path until you are free of the bracken and on the downward slope towards the first dune slacks. The ideal habitat begins as the path levels out and where there is rather sparse ground. The Frog Orchid doesn’t like competition from long grasses and it is often to be discovered just at the side of the path (and today one was right in the middle, having avoided being trod underfoot).
Where you find one you are likely to find more. They like each other’s company and can appear in small groups of anywhere from two or three up to a dozen within a square metre or so. And once you “get your eye in” by seeing one, you’ll begin to spot the others.
Don’t, however, expect the flower of this orchid to look exactly like a frog. Unlike the Bee Orchid which so wonderfully mimics the bee, the Frog Orchid does not set out to look like a frog. And why indeed would it?
In Ireland’s Wild Orchids – A Field Guide by Brendan Sayers and Susan Sex (which I recommend to orchid seekers) it is described thus: “Easy to overlook, the frog orchid is usually very short and, though often considered un-frog like, the flowers have a tiny, distinctly toad-like head”.
Looking for one or more of the 16 wild orchids reportedly to be found at Sheskinmore requires one to keep staring at the ground. It is, however, always worth keeping an eye to the sky from time to time. If we hadn’t looked up from “frogging” today, we wouldn’t have seen the magnificent female Hen Harrier that was dipping and wheeling as it hunted close to the ground over the grasslands.
Happy hunting to her, and to you.