Transactions of the Linnean Society of London/Volume 12/Observations on the Orchis militaris of Linnæus

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VI. Observations on the Orchis militaris of Linnæus.By Mr. J. E. Bicheno, F.L.S.

Read June 20, 1815.

The very near affinity which orchideous plants have to each other has rendered their separation into genera and species a matter of great difficulty. Scarcely any tribe, however, has been more effectually changed, or received greater improvements since the time of Linnæus, than this; and in support of the fact, we need only refer to the labours of Swartz in Sweden, and of Brown in our own country. No species required an elucidation more than the Orchis militaris; for Linnæus has introduced so many varieties, and they are so badly supported by synonyms, that it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to make out what he means. It is to be feared that English botanists in general have not understood them, and that they have still further perplexed the subject. My object, therefore, on the present occasion is to point out what I conceive to be the English species, which have been called, since the time of Linnæus, by the name of Orchis militaris. Of these there are three: the Orchis fusca of Curtis; the Orchis militaris of English Biology, vol. xxvii. t. 1873; and the Orchis tephrosanthos of Willdenow and Swartz. The synonyms which I am enabled to ascertain are not numerous, because I am situated far from the rich libraries of the metropolis; but even if I could command them, I believe I should not be disposed to quote largely, since it is almost impossible to identify these plants in the old authors, unless the description is accompanied with a figure. It will facilitate our inquiries if we examine each of these species separately, beginning with

Orchis fusca.

There is less difficulty in identifying this species and tracing its synonyms than in either of the other two. Linnæus, misled by the uncharacteristic and formal figure of Dillenius in Ray's Synopsis, t. xix. f. 2. has made two varieties of it, β and δ; and Hudson is the first author, adopting the Linnean system, who made it distinct under the name of purpurca. He, however, united it again with militaris in the second edition of his Flora. Jacquin clearly defined the plant; and his opinion was followed by Murray, Hoffman, Roth, Willdenow, Swartz, and most of the continental botanists. Curtis also has well distinguished it in his Flora Londinensis. Withering, in the second edition of his Arrangement, has made it a variety, but says he had not seen it. Sir James Smith in his excellent Flora Britannica has done the same, but has followed Linnæus too closely; and, if his synonyms be correct, has included three English species, and we believe a foreign one, in his militaris: O. tephrosanthos, O. militaris, Eng. Bot. vol. xxvii. t. 1873, O. variegata (the fig. 22, 23, and 24, of Vaillant being this plant), and O. fusca. The error in the first volume of English Botany, where fusca is called militaris, is corrected in a later volume, to which we have referred; and another plant is admitted, though unwillingly, as the α intended by Linnæus.

The earliest notice we have of this as an English plant is to be found in Gerard, p. 166; where he informs us that it grows in many places in Kent with the Bee and the Fly Satyrions, and among the rest "upon the hills adjoining to a village named Greenhithe," the very place referred to by James Sherard in Dillenius's Ray, and where it is frequently found at present. This information Gerard communicated of the Ornithophora candida, 165, or Butterfly Orchis; but the figure is Orchis fusca: and there is little doubt but that this was intended, since Johnson corrects the synonym in his edition, and complains greatly of the transposition of the figures in the chapter in which this plant stands. Caspar Bauhine, too, refers to this icon, excluding the synonym, under his Cynosorchis militaris major, which is unquestionably our present plant. Johnson's Orchis Strateumatica, p. 215, is an improved figure, and is copied in Parkinson's Theatrum Botanicum, p. 1344. no. 6. The description of the flower is significant enough, being like the "body of a man with his hands and legs cut off." Dillenius is the next author who takes notice of it as an English plant (for Ray does not seem to have been acquainted with its being indigenous); and though his figure in the Synopsis is stiff and bad, his description is appropriate — "Galea obtusa atro-rubens minusque surrecta, qua nota a præcedente (O. tephrosanthos) distinguitur." Vaillant, who understood the Orchideæ better than any of his predecessors, has given an excellent drawing of the flowers of this and others nearly allied to it; but it is curious that he should attribute to its flowers an insupportable smell of the goat, while Curtis says they have a strong smell, somewhat like, but not so pleasant as, Anthoxanthum. Blackstone is the last English author of the old school, who seems to have been acquainted with it, having found it plentifully "in the old chalk-pit near the paper-mill at Harefield." Since his time it has been gathered frequently in the fine chalky districts of Kent and Middlesex; but we do not know that it is found beyond these counties. Haller in his Hist. t. 31, and Curtis Flor. Lond. fasc. 6. t. 64. have given superb figures of it.

This Orchis surpasses all its English congeners in size and grandeur, and may be known by the lip of the nectary being divided into three segments, the two lateral ones being linear, and the middle one broad, bilobed, generally with an intermediate tooth. The middle segment varies in the depth of its fissures, so that many authors have described the lip as four-cleft, and others as five-cleft; but, when this is the case, the segments are never so regularly linear as in the following species, and they are notched; and, besides, the petals are broader and not nearly so acuminate.

Orchis militaris.Eng. Bot. t. 1873.

Though this plant is figured by the old herbalists Gerard, Johnson, and Parkinson, it does not appear to have been noticed as a distinct species by any English writer, until it was taken up by Sir J. E. Smith in the 27th volume of English Botany. In this work, however, it is confounded with another, the O. tephrosanthos of Swartz. The figure which Johnson gives of it, p. 216, no. 13. is a tolerable similitude, and leaves little doubt as to what he intended. Parkinson has copied it, p. 1344, no. 8. and has added another of a most fanciful and ridiculous kind, p. 1347, which seems to have had its origin in this species or the following. Merett in his Pinax tells us that Mr. Brown, one of the authors of the Catalogus Oxoniensis, and whom he calls in his preface "vir exercitatissimus et eruditissimus," found three Orchides "near the highway from Wallingford to Reading, on Barkshire side the river.

"1. Orchis anthropophora autumnalis. Col. mas. C. B. et P. 1347[1]. The Man Orchis.

"2. Orchis anthropophora orcades altera. Col. p. 318.

"3. Orchis oreades trunco pallido, brachiis et cruribus saturate rubescentibus."

The O. militaris, E. B. t. 1873 and O. tephrosanthos are probably intended by these descriptions, since the former is found at the present day in the neighbourhood of Streatley and Pangbourn, answering exactly to the situation which Brown describes; and the latter is said to grow there, and at Caversham in the neighbourhood, on the authority of the same Mr. Brown, in Ray's Catalogus Plantarum.

Vaiilant has given the figure of a flower, t. 31. f. 21. which he regards as only a variety of fusca, and says he gathered it on the same spot with O.tephrosanthos; but we are inclined to believe it belongs to this species. Ray's Orchis anthropophora altera. Hist. Plant. 1218, seems to answer to it. From the reports we have received of the Harefield O. militaris, mentioned by Blackstone as growing with the fusca, we suspect it to belong to this species rather than to the following. Haller's t. 28. is somewhat doubtful.

Willdenow's specific character, and consequently that of the Hortus Kewensis, does not accord with the English plant; for the middle segment cannot be called bilobed, nor are the bracteas, upon which the editor of Linnæus places his chief dependence, obsolete. The reference to Vaiilant also leads me to suspect it, t. xxxi. f. 24., as well as f. 22. and 23., being O. variegata. The bracteas, however, vary so much in shape in the dried specimens of all the three plants, from the circumstance of the point being caducous, that we ought not, perhaps, to rely too much on the character drawn from this appendage. Should Willdenow's species be found to be distinct, it will be necessary to give our plant a new trivial name; but we leave this to be ascertained by those who have foreign specimens at hand, and who can refer to the figures which he has quoted.

The chief character of our plant is the regular linear incurved segments of the lip, which are broader than in tephrosanthos, and not notched and ragged as in fusca, but much narrower. The flowers grow in a dense spike, which old Gerard describes as ash-coloured.

Orchis tephrosanthos.

This plant is well figured in tlie first and second editions of Gerard,p. 156, no. 1. p. 205, no. 2. though under a different name in each, and copied from them into Parkinson, p. 1344, no. 4. These old authors, however, do not mention it as found in England. The earliest information we have of this fact, if we except the allusion to it by Merett, already stated, is recorded in Ray's Catalogus Plantarum, where we learn that it was discovered by Mr. Brown on "the hills by the river Thames, near Cawsham-Bridge, a mile from Reading, and on several other hills on the other side the water towards Wallingford." This last habitat is omitted in the first edition of the Synopsis. Ray tells us in his Journey on the Continent, that he found it near Geneva, and that he had recently observed it in England; and yet it might be suspected that he never gathered it himself at Caversham (the modern name) in Oxfordshire, since be records the place in Gibson's Camden as being in Berkshire. It is found at present on the rising ground among the bushes to the west of the great chalk-pit facing the river Thames; but it is an uncertain plant, like many other Orchideæ, being found some years very abundantly, and then altogether as sparingly. The two habitats quoted in Flora Britannica, from Ray and Sibthorp, for this plant, are the same spot. That this is the tephrosanthos of Willdenow there can be no doubt. It takes its trivial name from the ash-colourcd spike; but this would have been equally applicable to Bauhin's plant. Orchis galea et alis cinereis, Hist. ii. p. 755, which seems not to belong to it, though quoted by Ray, but to O. militaris of Eng. Bot. or of Willdenow.

It might have been supposed that Withering, in his second edition of the Arrangement, intended our present species by his α, since he has uniformly quoted synonyms and figures which refer to it; but the description is evidently drawn up from a foreign species, probably O. variegata, and the references are all transferred in the succeeding edition to another variety. This is ε of Linnæus.

This plant is easily known by the narrow segments of the lip, and the acuminated petals. It is a delicate, smaller plant than the other two, flowers early in May, and has a remarkably abrupt termination in the spike of flowers. The lip of the nectary is less scabrous than in either of the others. Vaillant, t. 31. f, 25. 26. has well represented the flower; but we believe that no modern figure has yet been published of this rare plant.

  1. This reference to Bauhine I do not understand thoroughly, but suppose it to refer to his Orchis flore nudi hominis effigiem representans, mas. — Pin. p.82.