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Long Purples


Stumbling through the Internet, as one does, I found ‘John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary’. I was surprised to discover John’s comment, with his photos of Long Purples (Orchis mascula).

A Long Purple orchid. Photo from John Grimshaw's Garden Diary

A Long Purple orchid. Photo from John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary

I recently mentioned long purples in a story, ‘Ten Years, Six Miles, and One Canoe. The story describes my ten years of school holidays in a kayak exploring six miles of Dorset’s River Stour, between the years from 1955 to 1965, my teenage years.

Decades later, living in Canada, I was surprised to open a book and discover a passage by a prominent North Dorset landowner, Michael Pitt-Rivers. [2] He writes:

‘The Stour below the ruined mill-race [at Child Okeford] is probably not more beautiful than a hundred other shimmering swan-ways over which kingfishers move in a continuous blue leap. Grass banks, brown water alternately very deep and very shallow, kingcups, yellow flags and water lilies, long purples, rose-bay and willows. To children of Child Okeford and Shillingstone it is a paradise.’ [1]

Long purples in ‘Ten Years, Six Miles, and One Canoe

¶  “This stretch of the Stour was indeed a paradise. Sixty years ago, this experience was mostly mine, and mine alone. In ten years I met few people on the banks, and no one on the river. It was my luck to enjoy the privilege of growing through my teenage years on a river flowing through Elysian fields. Little did it occur to me at the time how special—how blesséd—was my personal experience.

Long purples, spring-blooming orchids

“Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) have done well this year, and the Pickering site had some of the longest ‘long purples’ I’ve ever seen.” ~ John Grimshaw

Pitt-Rivers refers to ‘long purples’ in his description. The term is seldom heard now, and the plant less common than before. In Hamlet (4.7), Gertrude speaks of  ‘crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, that liberal shepards give a grosser name’. This early purple Orchis expands the palette of colours in spring’s uncut pastures. Its Linnaean name, Orchis mascula, gives the plant a phallic quality. Flowers project from an erect stem growing from a twinned pair of bulbs. (Hence Shakespeare’s ‘grosser name’  used by ‘liberal shepards’.)

Long Purples are private beasts

Orchids prefer to be left alone, not cropped by cattle. In my day on the river a number of orchid species were restricted to those odd little pockets of land along the banks which cattle could not browse. They were also awkward to reach by tractors cutting hay. Just north of Haywards Bridge the river takes a sharp turn, leaving a tongue of rough grass where long purples used to grow. This was probably where Pitt-Rivers noticed them.”  ¶

Perhaps better conservation practices in land management are helping long purples to stage a come-back. The comment under the photo above comes from ‘John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary’. John is not writing about long purples on the Dorset Stour’s banks, unfortunately. In his caption, above, he reports them growing in Pickering, North Yorkshire.

[1] Michael Pitt-Rivers, and his book ‘Dorset: A Shell Guide’, 1968, p. 63.

[2] My experience during several decades of writing has shown that some of one’s best research findings are wholly serendipitous. That has been true for ‘Long purples’.