Helen Studd and Herpreet Kaur Grewal

A rare orchid, the last of its species known to be growing in the east of Britain, has been stolen and appears destined for the international black market.

The 2in-high bog orchid, believed to be worth up to Pounds 5,000, was dug up from a secret site in a Norfolk nature reserve by wild flower dealers.

The theft has effectively rendered the rare and vulnerable plant extinct from Yorkshire through to the Isle of Wight. Although a dozen plants are known to exist in marshy areas along the west coast of Scotland, Northumberland and the New Forest, this was the last remaining plant in drier eastern areas of Britain.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which had kept the site of the orchid a secret from all but a handful of its own conservationists, said the theft was “well planned”.

The thieves are believed to be wildlife experts who knew exactly how to spot the green coloured plant, which blends with its surroundings. They marked the site with three dowelling posts during the day and returned at night to take it.

When conservationists went to check the plant several days later they discovered the posts marking a triangle around the empty spot where the bog orchid had been. The thieves had not touched several other examples of rare but less valuable orchids growing near by.

Orchids can fetch up to Pounds 7,000 on the black market and are often stolen to order. Many are packed into suitcases or parcels and transported to botanical collectors in Japan, Germany and the west coast of America.

Wild plant experts fear that the publication of a book on Norfolk’s flora two years ago, which pinpointed the orchid’s site to within several miles, may have aided the thieves. The trust suffered a similar theft last year when three bog orchids were taken.

Alex Cruikshank, a nature reserve warden, said: “We have worked hard to support the bog orchid’s growth with a careful regime of mowing, turf-stripping and grazing. As that was the only flowering stalk found in Norfolk this year, this quite possibly marks the extinction of the plant from the county.” Bog orchids, which grow on acid marsh land, have developed a reputation for being extremely hard to propagate. While at least 117 flowering stalks were found in Norfolk in 1910, only one had been positively identified this summer.

Unlike other seeds, which have a built-in food supply, the orchid seed is like a powder. The only way that it can grow is in partnership with a fungus and even that takes years.

Attempts by the Royal Horticultural Society, based at Kew Gardens in London, to propagate the rare flower have resulted in failure. It is highly likely that any collectors hoping to introduce the rare plant to their collections would suffer the same fate.

Brendan Joyce, the director of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said that the theft had not only undermined years of painstaking conservation work, but it had also been a “sickening waste”. “The significance of this loss cannot be underestimated,” he added.

The bog orchid had become so rare in Europe that it was listed in 1994 as part of an EU Directive. The directive makes Britain, as the only country in Europe where the flower is believed to exist still, responsible for its continuation as a species. As such, it is protected under British law. Anyone caught stealing the plant is liable to a six month prison sentence or a Pounds 5,000 fine. DNA fingerprinting is becoming widely used to test claims of captive breeding.

The botanist Peter Marren, the author of Britain’s Rare Flowers, said: “It is a dull little thing, which could only be wanted by a collector. The fact it is certainly among the most vulnerable of all the orchids and at risk of dying out just makes it more wanted.” The bog orchid, known as Hammarbya paludosa, is particularly valued as a result of its Latin name, which is a tribute to a Swede, Carl Von Linne. He lived in the village of Hammarbya in the mid-18th century and is hailed as the founder of the current naming system for plants. Paludos means “bog”.

Orchids are more valuable than any other plant on the black market and get special attention. The last lady slipper orchid in Britain in the 1960s was stolen under similar circumstances from a site in the north of England. It has since been reintroduced in an area between the Lake District, Derbyshire and Northumberland, although its exact location remains a closely guarded secret. Thirty years ago another man, dubbed a “nutty collector”, was reported to have stolen bog orchids for his private garden.

The illegal trade in rare plants is a lucrative business, according to Traffic, the non-governmental organisation that monitors the black market: “Rare wild flowers can fetch enormous sums, in fact whatever the collector is prepared to pay. There is no fixed amount for a specimen, although orchids are estimated to fetch around $10,000 (Pounds 7,000).”

For the most avid collector there is considerable status in owning a wild collected plant and many will pay thousands for such a specimen. People from Taiwan and Eastern Europe seek out rare, new, exotic and naturally uncommon species in league with these collectors. In some cases species such as the giant pitcher plant and slipper orchid have been driven to near extinction as thieves often destroy extra plants to stop their rivals having them. This has proved a particular threat to slow-growing species such as the living rock cactus from Mexico.

Rarest plants
By: Helen Studd and Herpreet Kaur Grewal

BRITAIN’S RAREST PLANTS PEDUNCULATE SEAPURSLANE Atriplex pedunculata formerly thought to be extinct but found in a salt marsh on the Essex coast in September 1997. It is rare as it grows in a rather unsual habitat – a salt marsh.

FEN RAGWORT Senecio paludosus found in the fenland area of eastern England. Extinct from 1860s until a single plant was discovered near Ely, Cambridgeshire in 1972.

TRIANGULAR CLUB-RASH Schoenplectus triqueter found in the wetland grass, restricted to one clump on River Tamar in Devon.

RIBBON-LEAVED WATER PLANTAIN Alisma gramineum found in Worcestershire and Lincolnshire. It was formerly recorded from two other sites in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire in the 1970s, but has disappeared from both.

RED HELLEBORINE Cephalanthera rubra found in Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, Hampshire and the Chilterns, in Buckinghamshire. Very little seed was ever brought into Britain.

STARVED SEDGE Carex depauperata found in Somerset and Surrey – one site in each county. It is rare as it does not produce much ripe seed and has suffered as a result of woodland destruction.

GHOST ORCHID Epipogium aphyllum found in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, last seen in 1987, hence the name “Holy Ghost” orchidd. The national flower of Panama, a protected Appendix 1 species.

WORLD’S RAREST SPECIES PITCHER PLANTS Darlingtonia and sarracenia found in California, Oregon and the area of Mobile, Alabama. Brightly coloured tropical plant which is unique in that it is carnivorous.

LADY SLIPPER ORCHIDS Cypripedium calceolus found in Mexico through central South America and Borneo, has a huge modified petal shaped like a clog. It is confined to a single site in Yorkshire in Britain.

MOTH ORCHIDS Phalaenopsis native to southeastern Asia and part of Australia, a single spike of flowers comes from the base.

CATTLEYAS Includes aurea, dowiana, mossiae, native to tropical America. As a member of the orchid family they produce showy flowers in an array of colours.

CACTI Dicotyledonous native to Mexico and South America. Botanists estimate that there are about 1,650 species. Rare varieties are highly sought in the first few months after their discovery.