early purple orchis



early purple orchis defined in 1912 year

early purple orchis - EARLY PURPLE ORCHIS (Orchis mascula, Common Orchis);
early purple orchis - An Orchid always seems to spell the last word of civilisation. A sense of opulency envelops it; its arrangements are so elaborate, the necessities of its existence are so complicated.

This is borne out by the Early Purple or Common Orchis, whose brilliant red-purple spike makes even the blue of the hyacinth bells somewhat lacking in richness as it rises among them on the bright May days. Indeed, the whole plant is built on vivid lines. Not only is each flower wholly of shaded purples, its apparent stem is purple too, while the thick, juicy flower-stalk also shades off into purples as it nears the flowers.

The flower-spike, some 6 to 8 inches long in a good specimen, rises singly from a ring of handsome leaves stretched out rosette-wise. Long, broadly strap-shaped, and coursed by parallel veins from apex to base, the faces of the leaves are often marked by great splashes of purplish green which undoubtedly have been evolved as part of the plant's scheme for rendering itself conspicuous, and there is no question that the leaves are very efficient seconds to the flowers in this respect.

When we turn to look more carefully at the flower-spike we find, low down, one or more very thin and fragile leaf-like bracts, almost transparent, with just a hint of purple and green colouring. Higher up at the base of each flower and wrapping round the curious twisted structure which looks like a stem is also one of these bracts, only more deeply dyed. Now examine carefully a flower.

There is little distinction so far as colour goes between sepals and petals; of the sepals - three in number - two rise like little up-standing wings, and one arches over forwards from the back of the flower; of the petals, also three in number, two are small and paler in colour, and form a hood under the protecting sepal roof, the third is the chief feature of the flower, and forms the whole of its lower part. In front it projects as a wide-spreading lip, deep purple in front, paler behind, but with a paleness made conspicuous by bright dots of purple red. It wraps round the centre of the flower, forming a tube of considerable rigidity - we might call it almost cartilaginous if it were in the animal sphere - and then is carried back into a long pocket, perhaps half an inch in length.

On the top of the central rigid tube is a small dark object - a tiny column. This is the one and only stamen the flower possesses, and it is fused into one mass with the stigma - the top of the seed-vessel. (Originally there were three stamens, but two have aborted, and only their rudiments can now be detected.) The anther is two-celled, and in each cell is a pear-shaped mass of cohering pollen, both lumps being on white stalks at the base of which is a gland of sticky stuff. These two pollen masses are known as pollinia. The ovary is the apparent stem and serves the double purpose; it is long and so curiously twisted that the whole flower has been turned right round, the lip being at the bottom when it really ought to have been at the top. This twist in the ovary can plainly be seen.

Now, if we take a fully-opened flower and thrust a pencil point into it and then draw it out again, we shall find that the mechanism of the flower has promptly transferred the pollen from the anthers to the upper side of the pencil point, and there they stand, two little black pear-shaped heads on their white stems, the stems being united at the base. And what is more is that they are actually "glued" to the pencil, and quite difficult to detach, the stem pulling out into gelatinous strands at the attempt.

Presently they fall gradually forward and lie along the point, the two black heads now close together. Translate this "happening" into the "happening" to a bee and we quickly realise that when the proboscis of a bee is thrust into a flower the two "pollinia" are at once transferred to it, that is, of course, if the flower has not already been visited; if it has, then the cells are empty. The bee flies away, but the pollinia cannot fall off him because they are glued on. If he enters two or three adjacent flowers, he may carry three or four pairs of pollinia away, but notice, that after a few minutes they begin to fall gently forward, and by the time he has got to another plant they lie so that they will just touch the stigma as he pushes into a flower. This is itself sticky, and some of the pollen will become attached to it and remain on it, and will send down tiny tubes to fertilise some, at least, of the many immature seeds awaiting its advent. This process may be repeated in three or four successive flowers, all being fertilised. It is a truly marvellous arrangement, wholly dependent on the kind offices of bees and bees alone. No insect visitor without a proboscis could be of the slightest service, hence the absolute necessity of attracting the right sort. Sometimes the flowers add to these outward attractions that of scent, sweet, fragrant, and fresh; at other times the odour is far from pleasant, while yet again the spike-head may be absolutely without scent either good or bad. One would naturally expect to find honey in the hollow spur of the big petal, but none is secreted there; insects, however, seem to appreciate the juices that lie in its walls, and they suck them out. The result of all these processes is that a large number of very minute seeds are produced in an Orchid.

Not only are leaves and flowers remarkable, the roots, too, claim a share in the general interest. If a plant be uprooted we find that it has two fleshy tubers, somewhat egg-shaped. Above them are a number of rather fat white rootlets. These fleshy tubers are of great service to the plant. As it grows in summer-time the plant forms more nutriment than it requires for its immediate use, so it stores the surplus away in one of them and, as summer progresses, this gets more and more swollen. The other tuber, however, has meanwhile been drained of its store, for when the plant started to grow in the spring, it needed much nourishment and drew upon the reserve put away last summer, and so there are always two stores in an Orchid, hidden away below ground, one for present use, one for future. As an old writer said, "They alter every year by course, when the one riseth and waxeth full, the other waxeth lank and perisheth." All sorts of quaint ideas and traditions have ever centred round these tubers. They were of much account medicinally, but we are told, "It is that which is full which is to be used in medicine, the other being either no use, or else, according to the humours of some, it destroys or disannuls the virtues of the other, quite undoing what that doth." The useless-ness is probably a fact, the antagonism only a fact in "the humours of some." Witches used them in their philtres, the fresh tuber being given to promote true love, and the withered one to check wrong passions. Culpepper in his Herbal speaks of them as "hot and moist in operation and under the dominion of Dame Venus," and among other things he tells us that "being bruised and applied to the place" they heal the King's Evil.

But in the many traditions that exist about Orchids the general atmosphere is uncanny and unholy. They were believed to be the food of the satyrs and to have incited them to excesses, so an old name for Orchids was "Satyrion." Even their very origin was founded in wickedness. Orchis was the son of a satyr and a nymph, a young man full of wantonness, who insulted a priestess of Bacchus at a festival. The Bacchanalians tore the youth to pieces in their fury, and though his father called upon the gods to restore and avenge him, the only answer to his prayer was a permission for the youth to become a flower - the Orchis. Another old country fancy, and a pleasanter one, was that the Orchis sprang from the seed of the thrush and blackbird.

In many parts of Northamptonshire the plant is known as "Cuckoos" because it is associated with the call of that bird. In Kent two old country names for it are "Lady Bloody Thumb" and "King's Fingers." In Dorset the country children call it "Granfer Griggles," and the wild hyacinth which flowers at the same time and often by its very side "Granny Griggles." In Cheshire it used to be called "Gethsemane" because of an old legend that it grew at the foot of the Cross, and that some of the blood of our Lord fell on the leaves, and hence they have been stained ever since.

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