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 group of orchids, though not in the same genus, do have a common theme. Their common names reflect a passing resemblance to an animal or insect.
Greater Butterfly Orchid Platanthera chlorantha
The greater butterfly orchid grows all over the British Isles in a wide variety of habitats.
The leaves, which are long and glossy from the base of the plant, carry on up the flowering stem as stem leaves.
The flower spike can reach a height of 60cm, with up to 40 white flowers. The three upper petals and sepals form a wide rounded hood, which is white with green edges. The two side petals are ovate and stand out either side of the lip; these petals are pure white in colour. The lip is long and pointed, looking like a tongue poking out. It's white in colour, turning green towards the tip. There is a long pointed spur, coming from the back of the flower. This is also white, turning green towards the tip. As the pollinia are held either side of the lip, it is possible to see right into the hollow spur through the mouth of the plant. As the scent of this orchid is stronger at night and the flowers can clearly been seen in dim light, they attract moths. The elephant hawk moth Deilephila elpenor and its smaller cousin Deilephila porcellus are known pollinators.
This orchid likes to grow in many habitats. Calcareous soil is its preferred habitat, in meadows and old pastures. It can also be found in sand dunes and woodland below chalk hills.
Some of the decline in numbers for this species, is due to woodland clearance. However, this can also have the reverse affect, with hundreds of flowers appearing in a cleared piece of woodland.
Lesser Butterfly Orchid Platanthera bifolia
Unlike its cousin, the greater butterfly orchid, this orchid is less common. Mostly confined to the western side of the British Isles, it is tolerant of a far greater range of habitats than its cousin.
The basal leaves are broad and glossy, with up to five small stem leaves.
This orchid can reach a height of 55cm and carry up to 25 white flowers. The three upper petals and sepals form a pointed hood over the lip of the flower. The two side petals are wide and almost triangular; these stand either side of the lip, like wings on a butterfly. The lip is long and tongue-like, tinged with greenish-yellow at the tip. There is a long narrow spur coming from the back of the flower. The two pollinia are held over the entrance into the long spur.
As the flowers are night-scented, pollination is done by hawk moths. The pine hawk moth Hyloicus pinastri and small elephant hawk moth Deilephila porcellus have been recorded visiting this orchid. As the pollinia are held over the entrance to the spur, the moth has to push its way through to reach the nectar at the base of the spur. In the process the pollinia attach themselves to the head of the moth, which will take the pollinia with it to the next plant. This time the pollinia will attach itself to the stigma of the flower to pollinate it.
This orchid can be found growing on grassland, and on woodland where beech is present. It can also be found on hill pastures, moorland and heaths. As it is tolerant of acid soils, it will also inhabit marshland. This species has decreased considerably in the last 40 years, with a 33% loss due to drainage of fields, ploughing of grassland and woodland disturbance.
Frog Orchid Coeloglossum viride
This is a small and insignificant orchid, reaching up to 15cm in height. The basal leaves are broad and ovate, with two or three broad stem leaves.
There can be as many as 50 small flowers on one spike, the colour ranging from greenish-yellow to dull maroon depending on where it is growing. The upper sepal and petals form a tight rounded hood over the lip. The lip is long and three lobed, the two outer lobes being longer than the central lobe. The lip folds back and lies along the ovary1 There is a short, blunt spur coming from the back of the flower. The flowers are said to resemble a frog, the hood being the head and the lip being the legs of a frog.
Despite being named after an amphibian, the frog orchid prefers dry, well-drained soil in which to grow. Old chalk quarries, chalk downs and dry grasslands are perfect conditions for this orchid. It has hybridised with three species of Dactylorhiza, and also the lesser butterfly orchid.
Lizard Orchid Himantoglossum hircinum
There is no mistaking this orchid; it's tall and untidy as orchids go. The basal rosette of leaves are wide and have a fleshy feel to them, with several stem leaves. The leaves die off before the flowers open. It can grow up to 70cm and bear up to 80 strange looking flowers per spike.
The flowers are grey-green in colour, with dark veins and spots, usually brown or deep burgundy. The three outer petals and sepals form a rounded hood over the lip. The hood is grey-green on the outside, with brown lines and spots running to the base of the hood on the inside. The lip is three-lobed, and the two side lobes are narrow and straggly, brown or burgundy in colour. The central lobe is very long, usually 5-6cm. It is held inside the flower bud and, when the flower begins to open, the central lobe uncurls and twists as it is released. The base of the lip is white, with red markings, like drops of blood leading to the centre of the flower. The flowers are said to resemble a lizard that has buried itself halfway into a flower, with two outer lobes being the back legs and the central lobe a lizard's tail. The flower does have a scent, but not a pleasant one.
The lizard orchid is restricted to the southern half of England, particularly Kent. It likes to grow in chalk grassland, with a south-facing aspect. One of its favourite habitats seems to be golf courses, where it thrives. 90% of the population grows in Royal St George's golf course at Sandwich in Kent, where it is thought that the golfers unknowingly spread the seed from their shoes as they walk around the course. During the 2003 Open Championship large areas had to be roped off at the course, to protect the lizard orchids from damage by spectators.
Man Orchid Aceras anthropophorum
The man orchid sounds like it should be a tall, macho plant, but in actual fact, it's not that stately - reaching a maximum height of 40cm. The basal leaves are blue-green, ovate with a blunt tip and veined. They are already starting to die off when the flowers appear.
There can be as many as 90 flowers on one spike, which form a loose spiral around the stem. The three upper petals and sepals form a tight rounded hood over the lip, which is green in colour, with reddish-brown round the edges of each individual petal and sepal, giving it a striped look. The lip is four-lobed and looks like the figure of a human. The two outer lobes are narrow and look like arms, with the central lobe being much longer and forked, looking like a body with legs at the end. The arms and legs of the lip are reddish-brown, while the centre strip of the lip is green. There is no spur, but the ovary on which the flower sits is well defined.
Hybrids of the man orchid with monkey orchids were recorded in Kent in 1985, and with the lady orchid, also in Kent, in 1998.
This orchid likes to grow on calcareous grassland, in old chalk pits and quarries. It is confined mostly to the southern half of Britain, particularly in Kent and Surrey. Much of its habitat has been lost to ploughing up of grassland and poor management. Although this orchid is nationally scarce, large numbers have been found recently in Croydon, Surrey, where it is thriving and growing at 20 sites in the area.