Orchids of the British Isles - Saprophytes Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Orchids of the British Isles - Saprophytes

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The shield of the Science, Mathematics and Engineering faculty of the h2g2 University.Orchids of the British Isles - Introduction
Animal Nomenclature | Orchids of Bogs, Fens and Marshes | Dactylorhiza | Helleborines (Cephalanthera) | Helleborines (Epipactis) | Insect Mimics
Lady's Slipper Orchid | Miscellaneous Orchids | Orchis | Saprophytes | Tresses | Twayblades

This entry looks at some of the more bizarre British orchids, the saprophytes. They are not in the same genus, but do share a common theme; their lack of chlorophyll and leaves. Saprophytes have no need for leaves, as all their nutrition is gained from dead vegetation and animal material. They only appear above ground to flower and seed.

Ghost Orchid genus Epipogium gmelini

This rare and most unusual orchid has an extensive root system, which is far greater than the small stem of flowers it produces. It was once known as 'Spurred Coral-root', because its rhizomatous roots bear a resemblance to coral. This orchid produces no leaves at all and lacks chlorophyll1, which most plants need to survive. It is found only in the deepest beech woods.

The flowers are strange and complex; milky-white in colour with a small globular lip which is translucent yellow. The outer petals are narrow and hang down, and are dotted with tiny red spots. The flower stem is grey in colour and always straight; it grows up to 20cm tall and can bear six flowers at any one time. Flowering is erratic and many years, even decades, can pass without a recorded sighting. The last recorded sighting of this flower was in 1986. It is thought that occasionally bees pollinate the flowers, despite the fact that they grow in dark woods where bees rarely visit. Ripe seed pods have been found in the past, which does mean the flowers have been pollinated, possibly by moths or other insects which habituate the area.

Bird's Nest Orchid Neottia nidus-avis

This orchid, at first glance, can easily be mistaken for a member of the Broomrape family Orobanchaceae, which are all parasitic and feed from the roots of other plants. The bird's nest orchid, like the ghost orchid, is saprophytic, growing under beech or yew trees on chalky soil. Quite often it is found growing side by side with another plant, the Yellow Bird's Nest Monotropa hypopitys, which is also saprophytic.

The flowers of the bird's nest orchid are not what you would expect from the orchid family. There are up to 100 flowers densely packed up the stem, which can grow up to 50cm tall. The four outer petals are short and rounded forming a hood over the lip, which is long and protruding and made up of the two remaining petals which are joined. At the base of the lip is a small cup holding nectar; it is this nectar that gives the plant a distinctive smell of honey. The whole plant, including the flowers, is golden brown in colour; it also has no leaves and lacks chlorophyll.

Small flies are attracted to the flowers and they play a small part in pollination. These plants are self fertile and pollination can occur without the flowers opening or emerging above ground.

Coralroot Orchid Corallorhiza trifida

The coralroot is so named because its rhizomes are said to look like clumps of coral. It has no 'true' roots; instead it has tufts of hairs on which the mycorrhizal fungi live. The plant is totally dependent on the fungi, which the plant would die without. It does have a small amount of chlorophyll in the stem, which allows some photosynthesis when flowering. At all other times, this orchid remains hidden underground.

The flowers are yellow-green in colour. The two upper petals are joined to form a hood; the lower petal is white, with a red tinge in the centre, and looks like a tongue sticking out from below the hood. The three outer petals are green. Quite a few variations exist, which suggest that soil type may have an effect on the colour of the flowers. There can be up to 13 flowers on the stem, which grows to 28cm. Plants growing on dune slacks have a red tinge on the end of all the outer petals, as if they have been scorched by the sun. Some flowers are white, with no green-yellow colouring. This orchid is self-pollinating and it has no nectar or scent to attract insects.

It is only found in Scotland, usually in areas shaded by willow or alder. It also grows in damp dune slacks, where creeping willow is present.

1Has no green pigment.

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