Two rare species of orchid have interbred and produced a hybrid, the first time this pairing has been recorded in the UK.
The new orchid has appeared in Hartslock Nature Reserve in south Oxfordshire and tests have confirmed the parents are two rare species, the monkey orchid and the lady orchid.
The endangered monkey orchid, Orchis simia , and the lady orchid, Orchis purpurea , are named after the shape of their flowers.
Reserve Manager Martyn Lane says 'The monkey orchid has always been on this site as far as we know. It's only found on two native sites in England. The lady orchid became established here for the first time in 1998, although we do not know for sure whether it occurred naturally.'
A specimen of the new flower, which looks broadly similar to another orchid called the military orchid, was sent to plant expert Richard Bateman at the Natural History Museum for morphological (structure and form) tests. 'This raises the very interesting possibility that the military orchid could have originated long ago as a result of hybridisation between parents that resembled the monkey and the lady orchids.'
Genetic tests carried out at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew confirmed the species was a hybrid and that the mother was the lady orchid.
Richard adds 'It has long been clear that orchids hybridise unusually readily, but only more recently has it become clear that hybrid orchids receive more of their appearance from their ‘mother’ than their ‘father’. This remarkable phenomenon is still in search of a credible explanation'
As a result of careful management the monkey orchid population on site has already increased from 60 plants in 1986 to 405 plants in 2006. The hybrids are also doing well but could they be a threat to the genetic integrity of the parents? Volunteer reserve warden Chris Raper says, 'Far from being a problem, the new hybrids might actually be returning the population to a more natural state where occasional mixing of genes between the species is normal'.