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Several purple Early Marsh Orchids in the grassland

What are orchids? 

Orchids are part of the largest and most highly evolved family of flowering plants on earth. They are usually highly specialised to a specific habitat, with equally specialised relationships with pollinators, and fungi which live in the soil. 

What makes them so rare?

The majority of species reproduce via tiny seeds that are known as ‘dust seeds’ which need perfect conditions to germinate – with some species even relying on specific types of fungi in the soil for them to grow. This means that conditions in the soil and habitat need to be exactly right for an orchid species to thrive, hence why we don’t encounter them all the time. 

One UK orchid has gained huge notoriety for its rarity, the Ghost Orchid Epipogium aphyllum. This species is currently regarded as extinct but with hopes for its re-discovery. Occurring in Beech woodlands in deep leaf litter where gets its energy from decaying matter, it’s appropriately named for its pinkish white ghostly appearance rising from dead leaves.   

Where can you find orchids in the UK?

Although orchids are not the most common plant you will find, they do occur in a huge variety of habitats. Traditional hay meadows and pastures can host several species, the most common of these are

  • Common Spotted Dactylorhiza fuchsii
  • Marsh Orchids Dactylorhiza sp
  • Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera and
  • Common Twayblade Listera ovata

Many orchids also specialise in woodlands, for example Early Purple Orchid Orchis mascula, Helleborines Epipactus sp and Bird’s-nest Orchid Neottia nidus-avis (pictured), a fascinating yellow orchid without any chlorophyll that depends entirely on getting its food from decaying material in the leaf litter. There are also species that grow in fens and bogs, pine forests, heathlands and dunes.  

The majority of the time due to the specific requirements for growth, orchids tend to be associated with long established habitats, that haven’t had lots of disturbance. Therefore, a nature reserve can often be a useful place to look.  

How to spot orchids in the wild?

The best time of year to look for orchids tends to be late spring and early summer. Quite a few UK orchids have spotted leaves, making them even more distinctive and easy to spot. 

They are perennial plants, and in the UK are formed of a spike of flowers on a single stem. They all share a similar flower structure, despite the huge variety in their appearance. There are 3 sepals (outer protective petal-like parts) and 3 main petals, with one that usually forms a lower lip known as the labellum. This lip is often the largest and most distinctive ‘petal’ structure of the flower. 

Often their intricate design and some species astonishing mimicry to tempt pollinators is one of the most intriguing features of these plants. With Bee and Fly Orchids imitating these insects to attract them to land on the flower, mistaking them for a potential mate, and thereby pollinating the flower. 

How to tell them apart?

The key features of orchids for identification other than habitat, are the leaves (shape and markings) and the lower lip of the flower (labellum). The easiest species to start with are Early Purple Orchid, Common Spotted Orchid, Bee Orchid and Common Twayblade. This is because they are relatively more common than other species and most can occur in grassland and woodland habitats. 

It is always exciting to find any kind of orchid, and worthy of a photo! Just remember to be careful not to tread on any nearby orchids that are just coming up. Share the photos with friends, as you never known who doesn’t know that our wonderful UK orchid species even exist.  

Further reading 

FSC Orchid Guide

The Orchid Hunter by Leif Bersweden  

Britain’s Orchids A Field Guide to the Orchids of Great Britain and Ireland by Sean Cole, Michael Waller and Sarah Stribbling  

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