Flowers that glow in the darkness

Following the path inwards seems unnatural, a step away from light and safety. As the dense canopy of the oaks closes overhead, the ranks of rosebay willowherb and hemp agrimony that line the woodland’s bright outer edges slowly cede ground to bramble and nettle, which in turn fade out as I enter its dark heart, home to little more than spindly grasses and seedling hawthorns who cling on, hoping for a giant above to shed a bough and give them their chance in the sun. The soil, though, is moist, rich and fertile; and the air is filled with a peaty organic scent as the skeletal remains of last year’s leaf mould slowly become next year’s humus.

It is here, where little else grows, that I find this woodland’s dark secret. The flowers remind me strongly of the tropical orchids my father used to grow in his greenhouse, yet their pale, muted beauty seems somehow apt, befitting a plant that never ventures out into the sun.  A dozen violet helleborines are dotted around the woodland floor, each perhaps 45 centimetres tall, and bearing a single, stout spike laden with forty or more flowers. The sepals and petals are a light, spring green, and the pale pink-white lip, shaped like a pair of cupped hands holds nectar, to attract the wasps which are its main pollinator.

Named after the purplish base to its stem, the violet helleborine has a trick that enables it to survive in this dark and unlit place where others fail. The plants here are mixotrophic. For perhaps an hour each evening the low sun flickers across them, and they use their chlorophyll to make their own food, but for the rest of the day they become parasitic, tapping into the mycorrhizal fungal networks of these ancient oaks to steal sustenance from them.

The wood grows darker as the rain arrives, pattering on the canopy above me. As I head back to the light, I glance back. Legends to come to life as the flowers become woodland sprites, seeming to float unsupported in the air.

violet helleborine
violet helleborine

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