Early purple orchid Orchis mascula

Status Green - Least concern
Best Time to See April, May, June
Colour Purple
Habitat Woodland, Grassland

"Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, that liberal shepards give a grosser name, but which cold maids do Dead Men's Fingers call" - Shakespeare, Hamlet

In the above quote, the Early Purple Orchid is the "long purple" of Ophelia's garland, as referred to by Gertrude in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Often arriving with the bluebell, the purple-pink flowers of this early orchid make a handsome sight in spring. Its spikes of flowers are occasionally white, and it has bold, blade-shaped leaves.

When first in bloom it has a wonderful scent, not dissimilar to lily-of-the-valley tinged with blackcurrant but later starts to reek!


The early purple orchid was once a common plant, found in a variety of habitats. Sadly, these have also been places where urban development and modern farming methods have taken their toll. Although still found at sites throughout the UK it is by no means as abundant as it once was.


A wildflower that can adapt itself to a variety of habitats, early purple orchid can be found in hay meadows, woodland and often on roadside verges. It occurs most on non-acidic soils, and is also found in ancient woodland (especially coppice), chalk downland, old banks, limestone pavements and cliff-top grassland.

Best time to see

As its name suggests, this is one of the earliest orchids to bloom. Look out for its purple flowers between April and June.

Did you know?

There is a dizzying array of local names for the Early Purple Orchid. These include Adder's meat, Bloody butchers, Blue butches, Red butchers, Goosey ganders, Kecklegs, Kettle cases and Kite's legs. The grosser name that Shakespeare refers to may have been one of the Cuckoo names or Priest's Pintel (cf. the French name testicule de prêtre).

To the contrary, some names demonstrate an effort to supplant the usual associations, including Gethesmane and Cross-flower which comes from the legend that Early Purple Orchid grew under the cross, and the leaves were subsequently splattered with the blood of Christ.

The Early Purple Orchid generally has two root-tubers with food stored: a new, firm one filling up for next year's growth, and an old, slack one, which is emptying and supplying the present needs. Orchis meant testicle and this coincides with the way the plant was consumed in sympathetic magic. Dioscorides mentioned that Greek women gave the tubers in goat's milk, the full one for exciting desire, the slack one for restraining it. Also, if men ate the large tuber, male children were born whilst if women ate the smaller one, female children. Throughout Europe these orchids became a prime source of aphrodisiac food and medicine.

The dried tubers have been used to make a drink called Saloop or Salep by grinding them into flour, and mixing with hot milk or water, honey and spices. This was popular in the nineteenth century among manual workers probably owing to wholesome and strengthening qualities. It probably originated from the similar Middle Eastern drink, sahleb.

The dried tubers of 'Bull's bags' have also been carried as love talismans in Forfarshire.