Cephalanthera longifolia(L.) Fritsch, Narrow-Leaved Helleborine in the Wyre Forest

By Rosemary Winnal

The presence of Cephalanthera longifolia in Wyre Forest is well documented by past botanists, although it was often referred to as either Epipactis ensifolia or Cephalanthera ensifolia. Edwin Lees writes in 1867 "The appearance of orchideous plants is much influenced by the light and temperature that breaks in upon the coverts where they grow, for in some seasons it is difficult to find the Sword-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis ensifolia) in the Wyre Forest, while when I once visited it in the company with my friend the Rev. Andrew Bloxam, whole glades of the exposed portion of the greenwood were perfectly white with its elegant flowers.'

1999, in common with most other sites in Britain, was a poor year for Cephalanthera longifolia in Wyre Forest. This continues the downward trend for this species both nationally and in the Wyre Forest, and it is suggested that time is running out if the species is not to become extinct during the next few years. The reasons for the general decline are complex, and may be linked to climate changes especially as the species in Britain is at the edge of its geographical range. However, post war changes in woodland management with the cessation of rotational coppicing probably play an important part in the equation, and it is known that the plant was much more common when the forest was coppiced for charcoal on a 18 year cycle.

The Narrow-leaved Helleborine (also called Long-leaved or Sword-leaved Helleborine) Cephalanthera longifolia(L.)Fritsch is native in Japan, western Asia to Kashmir, North Africa and Europe to about 63 degrees north in Norway. In Britain it is nationally scarce (present in between 16-100 10-km squares) and a decreasing plant at the north west edge of it's range. Hampshire is the stronghold, and it occurs in other scattered pockets in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland north to Sutherland. A National Review of the species was carried out in 1993 jointly between Hampshire Wildlife Trust and British Wildlife. The results showed a serious decline in Britain from 79 10-km squares sites pre 1970 to 42 in 1993. Only 3 of these sites had over 100 plants and 33 of the recorded 48 sites had less than 10 plants. 40% of the total were in Western Scotland, and 23% in Hampshire.

Plantlife has adopted Cephalanthera longifolia as one of the species on its 'Back from the Brink' species recovery programme (supported by English Nature & World Wide Fund for Nature). In 1997 Wyre Forest was chosen as one of three sites in Britain for Plantlife to consider in depth and to give special advice regarding management. A monitoring programme was set up In Wyre during 1997 to obtain data about each plant and the response of the colonies to changes in woodland management.

This helleborine is perennial and relies on fungal mycorrhizal associations in order to grow, at least for part of its life history. It has short underground rhizomes, which apparently do not necessarily produce flowering spikes every year. Thus periods of dormancy may be observed with some mature plants. Cephalanthera longifolia has flowering spikes containing usually between 3 and 20 individual flowers. The fruiting capsules ripen on the plant and the tiny seeds are released as fine dust through longitudinal slits.']n vitro germination and growth takes about 3 years from germination of seed to emergence of the neonatant (young non-flowering plant).

The flowers, as in all orchids, do not produce nectar and Cephalanthera species have no detectable scent. They may be reliant on mimicry to attract pollinators. The pollen is produced in each flower within a stalkless pollinia (waxy sac), and an insect pollinator is required for the transfer of this from one flower to another, It has been noted that self-pollination cannot occur between flowers on the same plant, Solitary bees are thought to be the pollinators and they must have a sunny area in which to fly, and nectar-producing flowers from which to collect nectar and pollen for food and to store in their burrows for their larvae to feed on.

During 1998 three Cephalanthera longifolia sites in Wyre Forest were identified, the plants were mapped and data from each plant was collected during the flowering and fruiting season. 22 plants were found of which 18 flowered. 4 fruiting capsules were produced and 3 of those dehisced during the autumn.

During 1999 three other sites were added of which two had not been previously recorded and one which was re-found from the 1980s. In total 53 plants were monitored of which 18 flowered. Only two seed capsules were produced, both at the same site, and only one of these dehisced.

The Forestry Commission is committed to working with Plantlife to try to save this species from extinction in Wyre Forest. The monitoring programme will continue and through this it is hoped that more will be learned about this beautiful and intriguing plant before it is too late.

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