British Wild Orchids Gallery

To illustrate the wide variety of British wild orchids...


 Orchid Family

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Orchid Family
It is generally reckoned that there are 49 species of British orchids. Some are relatively common - the Common Spotted Orchid can be found in most British counties - whilst others, such as the Lady's Slipper orchid or the Monkey Orchid, can only be found in one or two counties (and then only in single locations).

Orchids have fascinated both botanists and lay-people for many hundreds of years and it is not difficult to see why. Their enigmatic life cycle, beautiful flower-spikes and fanciful likeness to other creatures have made them the subject of study of many of the foremost naturalists (including Darwin).

These days many peoples' exposure to orchids is restricted to house or exhibition specimens. It is true that, in general, their wild British cousins are much less 'showy' and smaller in stature. However, this does not detract from their innate beauty or the pleasure in finding these plants in their natural environs.

The Helleborines
10 species. Generally tall with few, widely spaced flowers. Two sub-tribes: Cephalantherinae and Epipactinae.

Red helleborine
Red Helleborine
An extremely rare resident of southern beechwoods on chalk. Known only from solitary stations in Bucks, Gloucs and Hants, the Red Helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra) is, perhaps, the most beautiful of our orchids with its vivid rose-purple flowers. Like many orchids, the red helleborine is capable of growing and flowering in quite deep shade and, if conditions become too adverse, it is able to lead a subterranean existence for many years until conditions become more favourable. This specimen was taken in the Dordogne region of France, towards the end of May, where it was growing on a scree slope.

Red helleborine close-up

This close-up shows the almost tubular shape of the flowers that characterise the Cephalanthera family. The lowest flower is at its most open and the yellow tinged lip can be seen.

This shot was taken at a Buckinghamshire site in mid-June under a dense beech canopy.

White helleborine
White Helleborine
Relatively common in beechwoods on chalk in southern England. The White Helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium) is quite shade tolerant and this photograph, taken in Kent in mid-May, shows the typical habitat - because of the shade this orchid is quite often the only plant growing beneath the dense tree canopy characteristic of beech.

White helleborine close-up

This close-up of the flower heads of three plants shows flowers at different stages of opening. In common with most orchids, the flowers mature from the bottom, hence the lowest ones open first (and generally set seed first). The right-hand plant has most of its flowers open to their full extent and the yellow markings of the lip (labellum) can be clearly seen.

This shot was taken in the Causse region of France at the end of May.

Narrow-leaved helleborine
Narrow-leaved Helleborine (or Sword-leaved Helleborine)
Rare, but widely scattered from the Highlands of Scotland, through Wales, down to Hampshire. The Narrow-leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) is distinguished from its much more common relative, the White Helleborine, by the length and narrowness of its leaves and the lack of leaves in the flower head. It flowers in late May in the south and up to several weeks later in the north.

This photograph was taken in the Causse region of France, at the end of May, where the orchid is a relatively common inhabitant of the woodland scrub.

Marsh helleborine
Marsh Helleborine
The Marsh Helleborine (Epipactis palustris) is relatively common in southern dune-slacks, fens and calcareous marshes but its range does extend to southern Scotland.

This specimen was photographed at the marshy outflow of Lake Annecy in Alpine France in early July.

Marsh helleborine close-up

This close-up of a single flower from the same plant shows the intricate structure of the lip (labellum) including the pink striated upper section.

Violet helleborine
Violet Helleborine
The Violet Helleborine (Epipactis purpurata) is restricted to south and south-east England with the densest populations in Kent, Surrey and the Chilterns. It favours beechwoods on chalk but may also be found in oakwoods on sandy soil.

This photo was taken in mid-August at a Chiltern nature reserve in Oxfordshire and gives an impression of the deep shade that this species can tolerate (and even favours!).

Violet helleborine close-up

Although the flower is predominantly green, it does have an attractive pale pinkish-brown lip. The 'violet' of the plant's name refers to its tendency to have a variable degree of fine violet suffusing of its stem and leaves.

Not represented: Broad-leaved Helleborine, Dune Helleborine, Dark Red Helleborine, Green-leaved Helleborine and Pendulous-flowered Helleborine

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Insect Mimics
Four species represented by the genus Ophrys. The flowers mimic specific insects (usually solitary wasps) and rely, to varying degrees, on pseudo-copulation to achieve fertilisation.

Fly orchid
Fly Orchid
The Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera) is the tallest of this group but the most often overlooked because of its relatively small, well-spaced flowers. The plant is most common in south-east and south-central England where it can be found in, and at the edge of, downland beechwoods. It may also be found on open downland often in the company of the other Ophrys species described below.

This shot shows several flower-spikes, apparently from the same plant. It was taken at a Kent nature reserve at the end of May. This plant was one of several that had exploited a patch of land that had been cleared the previous winter. Although the Fly Orchid can tolerate quite dense shade, it does particularly well under such conditions and will flourish until other flora becomes established and out-competes it for light.

Fly orchid close-up

The insect mimicry is achieved by: wire-like upper petals that resemble antennae, a band of iridescent blue that mimics the blue sheen of a fly's wings when they catch the light and two dark glistening patches under the "antennae" that resemble eyes.

The yellow "eyes" are the pollinia - waxy globules of pollen. It is a feature of orchids that their pollen is always in this form - it is never in a free, powdery state that can be picked-up by pollinators such as honey bees. Instead all orchids rely on the pollinia becoming attached to the heads (usually) of visiting insects, the base of the pollinia being very sticky. The pollen is then rubbed off onto the stigma when the insect visits another flower, thus achieving fertilisation.

Fly orchid with wasp Here a male wasp is visiting a flower. The wasp is most likely to be of the species Gorytes mystaceus. The wasps attempt to copulate with the flower but this behaviour ceases once female wasps emerge (as is common with such solitary species the male wasps emerge some time earlier than the female).

This shot was taken in mid-June in a Buckinghamshire nature reserve.

Bee orchid
Bee Orchid
Probably the best known British orchid, it is widespread and can be found in most counties of England and Wales (it is believed to be absent from Scotland). It favours short chalk turf but can also be found on sandy soils, especially the sand of stabilized dunes, and, exceptionally, on clay in the presence of Green-winged Orchid and Adder's-tongue (Ophioglossum vulgatum). Its preference for open, sunny aspects and its relatively large flowers make the Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) fairly easy to find. However, this orchid, like many others, can fluctuate in its appearance and a site showing many dozens of plants one year may be almost devoid the next. This is partly due to the plant's monocarpic nature in that once it has flowered, the plant usually dies.

This group was taken at the end of May in the Cevennes region of France.

The next sequence of shots illustrates the variable nature of the flower particularly in the shape and patterning of the lip.

Bee orchid close-up #1Bee orchid close-up #2Bee orchid close-up #3

The first photograph was taken in the Causse region of France towards the end of May; the other two at a Buckinghamshire nature reserve in mid-June. My thanks to Pascal Pernot for pointing out that the first shot is of a Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax group) which is not a British species.

In the last image, the drooping yellow 'club' is a pollinia (see Fly Orchid, above). Whilst it is adapted by mimicry for cross-pollination by bees, it is known that most flowers of the Bee Orchid are self-pollinated. As in the last photograph, the pollen mass swing down on their stalks to fall directly on to the stigma.

Early spider orchid

Early Spider Orchid
The Early Spider Orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) is a much rarer cousin of the Bee Orchid, above. Indeed it is a protected species and can only be found is select locations along the south coast of England.

It is far less showy than the Bee Orchid and smaller in stature; most of the flower being green and brown and typically reaching only four inches in height.

Early spider orchid close-up

This close-up illustrates one of its distinguishing characteristics - that of a capital 'H' on its lip. This has a bluish metallic lustre when the flowers are at their best but fades to a silver as the flowers age.

Both shots were taken at a Kent nature reserve at the end of May.

Not represented: Late Spider Orchid

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Last revised: June 28th 2013
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ÓCopyright Paul Nielsen 1997-2013