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

Orchids of the British Isles - Orchis

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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

There is some doubt about the taxonomy of this orchid, and it could be renamed Neotinea ustulata in the future.

It comes in two forms; early and late-lowering. Both forms differ slightly from each other and neither grows in the same place as the other.

The early-flowering form is much smaller than its counterpart, growing to a maximum height of 10cm. The leaves form a rosette at the base of the plant, with sheathing stem leaves and leafy bracts.

There can be up to 20 sweet-scented flowers on one spike. The upper petals and sepals form a rounded hood over the lip. The hood is deep reddish-brown in colour, which gradually fades to white as the flower matures. The lip is three lobed, with two outward-facing lobes and a central lobe which is forked. The lip is white in colour, with deep red spots which look like drops of blood. At the base of the flower there is a short spur.

This orchid likes to grow on well-grazed grassland. It prefers a chalky soil in a warm sunny position. It is often found on southward-facing slopes, where it gets most sun and warmth.

The late-flowering form can grow up to 15cm, mainly because the grass among which it grows is longer at that time of year.

Aside from the height of the late-flowering form, the main difference is in the flower. The hood of this orchid remains reddish-brown until the flower dies. The lobes are shorter than the early-flowering form, with red flushed edges. The deep red spots are much larger, sometimes merging together.

Both forms are pollinated by the fly Tachina magnicorris. They take 15 years or more to reach maturity, and this factor has contributed to its decline. The need for closely-grazed land, much of which has been lost in recent decades, is also a contributory factor. Exmoor ponies have been introduced to one area where this orchid grows to help keep the area grazed so the orchid can thrive.

Early Purple Orchid Orchis mascula

In past times this orchid was also known as 'long purples' and 'dead mens' fingers'. Shakespeare makes reference to it in Hamlet:

There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples:
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name;
but our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.

This orchid can be found all over the British Isles, from Cornwall right up to the North of Scotland and across Ireland.

The basal rosette of leaves are oblong, covered with dark blotches. Often there a two or three stem leaves, these are usually a lighter green with dark blotches.

The plant can reach up to 60cm in height and carry between 20 and 50 flowers. The flowers themselves are quite large and form the loose spike. The top three outer sepals and petals are violet in colour and form a lax hood over the lip. The side-petals, which are also violet, curve up towards the hood. The lip is wide with two small lobes at the front; it's white in the centre with small dark speckles. There is a rounded spur at the back of the flower which curves upwards. When the flower first opens, it has a honey-like scent. As the flower matures, it takes on the scent of a tomcat. This could be a signal to visiting insects that this flower is no longer receptive to pollination. Buff-tailed bumblebees are known to pollinate this orchid.

There are two variants, a white form and a form which is mostly white with flecks of violet.

This orchid is monocarpic1 and relies on good seed germination. This has led to the distribution of populations of this orchid being rather erratic. It grows in a wide range of habitats, preferring neutral or chalky soil.

Green-winged Orchid Orchis morio

This is another orchid that could be renamed at some point, to Anacamptis morio.

It likes to grow in meadows, sand dunes and can even be found in churchyards, or even in a garden lawn. This orchid can reach a height of 15cm and bear up to 12 flowers.

The leaves are ovate and pointed, blue-green in colour, with two clasping stem leaves. The flower stem appears from the centre of the of the clump of leaves. It is green at the base, but turns a deep burgundy about halfway up the stem.

The flower's colour ranges from deep lilac to white. The upper sepals and petals form a hood over the lip; these petals have darker coloured veins running from base to tip. In the white-flowering form, these veins are green. In the lilac form the veins are purple. The lip is wide with three lobes, the centre lobe is shorter, while the outer lobes fold down at the sides. Dark spots mark the pale centre of the lip, with a short upward pointing spur coming from the back of the flower. Some of these orchids have a vanilla scent, while others appear to have no scent at all.

Bumblebees are known to pollinate this orchid, particularly the red-tailed bumblebee and Bombus sylvarum.

Lady Orchid Orchis purpurea

The name comes from the appearance of the flowers; the upper sepals and petals form a rounded hood, said to look like a lady's bonnet. They are burgundy in colour, with dark markings. The lip is wide and with four lobes. The two side lobes are long and narrow, said to look like arms of the lady. The two middle lobes are rounded and wavy, said to look like a crinoline skirt. The colour of the lips varies from plain white to white with burgundy spots and edges. There is a very short spur, which sits behind the flower. There can be up to 50 flowers on a single stem, which can grow to a height of 100cm.

The leaves form a rosette from which the flower spike emerges. They are broad and long, with a glossy appearance.

This orchid prefers to grow in open woodland, especially where there is beech or hazel present. It is confined mostly to the county of Kent, with one or two small pockets in Somerset and Hampshire.

Pollination is done by the wasp Odynerus parietus, and although a lot of seed is produced only a few them germinate. The lady orchid is becoming increasingly rare, not so much because of loss of habitat, but more due to damage by Muntjac deer, which eat the plants before they flower.

Military Orchid Orchis Militaris

The leaves of this orchid are broad and leathery, and dark green in colour with sheathing stem leaves. The flowering spike grows from the centre of the plant and can reach 60cm in height.

The flowers, up to 30 on one stem, have a vanilla fragrance. The outer sepals and petals form a hood over the lip. The hood is pale pink on the outside, with deep mauve lines on the inside, and these lines track to the centre of the flower. The hood petals and sepals are reflexed at the edges, so the inside of the flower is clearly visible. The lip has four deep-cut lobes, pink in colour with tufts of purple hairs in rows running down the centre of the lip. These rows of tufts are known as the buttons, as they look like the rows of buttons on a soldier's jacket. The two side lobes are narrow, while the two bottom lobes are wide and square shaped. There is a rounded spur at the back, which runs alongside the flower stalk.

This orchid likes to grow on chalky grassland, where it can bask in the sun. It has become very rare with only four known populations across the British Isles. 95% of that population grow at a nature reserve in Suffolk, where it is carefully managed to ensure survival. The solitary bee Nomada striata is thought to be one of several pollinators, but seed production is poor.

Monkey Orchid Orchis simia

The monkey orchid is unusual amongst British orchids, as its flowers open from top to bottom. The flowers take on the shape of a small monkey. There are two colour forms, rose pink and dark pink. The upper petals and sepals form a pointed hood, pale pink to white on the outside, with darker lines and spots on the inside. The lip has four deep cut lobes, which look like arms and legs. The lobes curl outwards and are tinged with darker pink at the tips. In the centre of the two bottom lobes there is a long tooth, which looks like a tail. There is a small rounded spur at the back of the flower, and the flowers have a vanilla fragrance. This orchid, like the military orchid, also has tufts of hairs running along the centre of the lip, though unlike the Military Orchid they do not run in uniformed lines. There are two populations of the monkey orchid; one in Kent, the other in Oxfordshire. The populations in Kent are taller and darker in colour, while the ones in Oxfordshire are shorter with paler flowers. There can be as many as 35 flowers on one spike, which can grow between 10 and 30cm.

Pollination is carried out by short-tongued bees, although both populations have different bees of the same genus Lasioglossum doing the pollinating. The two sites in Kent and Oxfordshire are carefully managed so that these orchid have the best chance of survival. In Kent they used hand pollination to increase stocks of the monkey orchid. It was very successful, going from six plants to 205 in ten years. In Oxfordshire, the population of this orchid has increased from 60 to 405 plants in two decades.

The leaves are long and rounded at the ends, with a couple of sheathing stem leaves. The leaves fold inwards from the sides and from the sheathing stem leaves, the flower spike emerges.

In 2006, a hybrid between the monkey orchid and lady orchid was discovered in the reserve in Oxfordshire. The lady orchid appeared for the first time in this reserve in 1998. The new hybrids resemble the military orchid in appearance. Tests at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew confirmed that this orchid was a new hybrid, with the lady orchid being the mother.

1Flowers once, sets seed and dies.

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