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We are well and truly into summer, and we’ve already witnessed a spectacular succession of wild plants flowering over the last few months. Now that we’ve waved goodbye to the anemones and hawthorn is beginning to fade, we’re welcoming the orchids.

Butterfly orchids are delicate, elegant plants, with a single floral spike bearing many pale, creamy green flowers. Each flower resembles a tiny moth (or butterfly) in flight, with its wings outstretched. They are sweetly scented and can be found growing in a diverse range of habitats, from moors and bogs to woodlands, but most commonly they are found in undisturbed grasslands and meadows. 

The difference between Greater and Lesser Butterfly Orchids

Butterfly orchid differences

There are two species, Greater Butterfly Orchid Platanthera chlorantha and Lesser Butterfly Orchid Platanthera bifolia. The differences between them takes an expert eye to spot, and are to do with the angle between the pollen bearing organs of the plant (the pollinia).  

Both species are pollinated by moths. At night, the first signal a moth will pick up on is the fragrance of the orchid – once closer the pale flowers will stand out against the darkness.

UK orchids are in trouble 

Unfortunately, both species are experiencing dramatic declines nationally.  Greater butterfly orchid is faring the better of the two but is still classed as Near Threatened in the UK. Lesser butterfly orchid has been assessed as Vulnerable on the UK Vascular Plant Red List and has disappeared from over half of its previous range in the last 50 years. 

Declines across both species are because of changes in agricultural grassland management – these species need consistent management over a long time to thrive. Damaging land use change could include too much (or too little) grazing, drainage of fields, and even addition of chemical fertilisers. Orchids rely on a soil fungus to survive, and agricultural chemicals can kill off this unseen life support network. 

Thankfully, as their habitats are safe and protected within our reserves, these species are still thriving. To be sure of this, every year we participate in the butterfly orchid count to monitor how our populations of these beautiful plants are faring.  

2023’s Butterfly Orchid Count Results 

Why do we count our Butterfly Orchids? 

Monitoring how they are faring is an important part of understanding our reserves and making good management choices. Both our Welsh nature reserves are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and both list the Butterfly Orchids as a notified feature- so there is a legal duty to ensure the populations remain in good condition 

Volunteers counting orchids at Caeau Tan y Bwlch nature reserve

We want to be able to demonstrate that the way we are managing land is benefitting them, and counting the number of orchids each year, and gathering supporting habitat information, can help us adjust our site management when we need to. This enables us to give the orchids the best possible chance they have going forwards. 

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