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27 Jun 2022

Scarce orchid found in Highlands after 250 years

A dense green woodland covers the slopes of a hill, reaching all the way down to the loch in the distance. Mountains can be seen on the far shore.
Balmacara Estate
The coral root orchid has been rediscovered in Wester Ross after a gap of 250 years.

This scarce and enigmatic plant was rediscovered at Balmacara Estate in the North West Highlands earlier this month. The find took place during a visit from a small party of conservation land managers from the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest. The group were there to discuss the management of Scotland’s rare, biodiverse and threatened rainforest habitat and chanced upon the diminutive, but beautiful, orchid in an area of wet woodland on the Coille Mhòr Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Gus Routledge, a young expert ecologist representing Reforesting Scotland and Scotland: The Big Picture, made the exciting discovery.

The orchid was last recorded in the area by John Lightfoot and Thomas Pennant in 1772 and was the first ever record of coral root orchid from the British Isles. The record was published in the first botanical book on Scottish plants, Flora Scotica, which recounts some of the earliest recorded botanical expeditions to Scotland. It described the location as ‘in a moist, hanging wood called Cabal, on the south side, near the head of Little Loch Broom’. The exact location of this record, given the place name is now obscure, is not known other than it was in Wester Ross. The 2022 site is being kept secret in order to protect the species from being trampled by mistake, as it can be difficult to spot.

The orchid is classed as nationally scarce, meaning it has only ever been found in fewer than 100 locations in the UK. It is typically found in wet, swampy woodland in the more continental north-eastern areas of the UK. There are very few records from the western side of Scotland. According to the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s database, it has been seen in only 25 sites (10km squares) in Scotland since 2020 and only 3 elsewhere in the UK in this time, all in northern England.

A close-up of a tiny orchid plant with very pale yellow flowers, seen against a bright green background.
Coral root orchid (Corallorrhiza trifida)

Jeff Waddell, the National Trust for Scotland’s Senior Natural Heritage Advisor, is familiar with the orchid from a few other sites in Scotland and was thrilled by this discovery. He said: ‘This is a special find and a great addition to the assemblage of rare plants found in Scotland’s Rainforests, such as on the National Trust for Scotland’s Balmacara Estate. Gus’s record creates an incredible link through 250 years of botanical time, to one of the first expeditions to Scotland by John Lightfoot in the 1770s! It’s a great example of the nature, beauty and heritage than can be discovered at National Trust for Scotland sites all over the country.’

Gus Routledge, of Reforesting Scotland, said: ‘Just the week before I’d discovered a new population of this special orchid in much more typical boreal birch-willow woodland near Inverness. I wasn’t really expecting to see it at Balmacara, but I’ve always got an eye out when walking through those wet woodlands.’

One of the reasons the orchid is so scarce is its unusual lifestyle. Rather than relying on photosynthesis for its energy, most of its energy comes from a coral-like fungal mass at the base of its stem. The fungi are, in turn, ‘plugged into’ trees such as willow and birch through a network (mycelium) of fungi. This means the orchid can only grow in a few places where this specific association between fungi and trees occurs, such as in some of our swampier wet woodlands. Unfortunately, this habitat has been vulnerable to drainage and clearance from previous forestry and agricultural practice. Many of its remaining sites are now protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Scotland’s Rainforest, of which the National Trust for Scotland’s Coille Mhòr is a great example, is found only in a restricted area of the west coast of Scotland that is subject to high rainfall. This is an atypical habitat for this orchid species, but with several recent recordings in this habitat it either suggests these colonies were previously overlooked or the species is newly colonising the area, perhaps as the climate changes.

Balmacara is well known for its crofting landscape and supports a total of 14 species of orchid, as well as many other flowering plants in its species-rich croft meadows.