Rare ‘Naked Hanging Man Orchid’ reveals itself at St John’s College

“It is the find of a lifetime”

A protected orchid that looks like a naked man has caught gardeners by surprise in the grounds of St John’s College, Cambridge.

The Orchis Simia is known as the ‘Naked Hanging Man Orchid’, and more commonly as the ‘Monkey Orchid’, because of its resemblance to a naked male or a monkey.

The orchid is one of the rarest native orchids in the UK and delighted gardeners at St John’s College when a single flowering specimen was spotted in an area of grass that has been left unmown to encourage biodiversity and wildlife.

David Brown, Deputy Head Gardener, who found the orchid, said: “I am ecstatic, it is the find of a lifetime. I knew it was unusual when I first spotted it in the long grass, so I called over the Head Gardener and we had it verified.”

Naked Hanging Man or Monkey Orchid
The Orchis Simia, known as the Monkey Orchid or Naked Hanging Man Orchid.

The orchid, which is a protected species, can be found in mainland Europe but has only been identified in three other locations in the UK, at one site in Oxfordshire and at two in Kent.

Its normal habitat is open chalk downland, although it can grow in woodland margins, which is similar to the location of the plant in St John’s.

Meteorologist Jonathan Shanklin, who is the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland Recorder for Cambridgeshire, and Co-President of Cambridge Natural History Society, confirmed the plant is the rare Naked Hanging Man Orchid after being contacted by David Austrin, the Head Gardener.

“It is the first time I have ever seen one so I am very excited by it, it really is an astonishing find,” said Jonathan.

“The seeds can be carried hundreds of kilometres by the wind and this is thought to be the main source of sporadic occurrences in England, perhaps originating in the Paris basin. Short turf and open ground are required for seedling establishment, which sounds like exactly what it was provided with last year.”

David Brown (left) and Jonathan Shanklin with the orchid
David Brown (left) and Jonathan Shanklin with the protected orchid.

The orchids are pollinated by honey bees and a variety of other insects but they can also be fertilised by their own pollen. The flowers are whitish pink and purple with a pink-spotted hood over the lip of the flower and a general shape that looks like a monkey or a man.

David Austrin, the College’s Head Gardener, said: “The Latin name is Orchis Simia, with simia being the Latin word for ape. They look like spider monkeys as well as a naked man ‘hanging’ from the flower spike.”

The blooming period in the UK is May to early June so the orchid is likely to only bloom for up to two weeks and there is no guarantee it will reappear next year.

David said St John’s has fairly chalky and alkaline soil, which is suitable for the orchid. “We’ve been leaving areas of the College grounds unmown, which is good for biodiversity and pollinators, and obviously rare orchids too.

“It is very exciting to see one of the orchids at St John’s, it is absolutely exquisite.”

Jonathan, who is an Emeritus Fellow at the British Antarctic Survey, was one of the scientists that discovered the hole in the Antarctic ozone layer in the 1980s, which led to the worldwide banning of CFCs in aerosols and cooling devices. He pointed out that several species of orchids such as the bee and lizard orchids are now appearing further north in the UK than ever before as northern England and Scotland warm due to climate change.

Published: 16/5/2024

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