When we hear the word ‘orchid’, it is often the exotic species that spring to mind. So it may come as somewhat of a surprise to discover that we have 56 native species of orchid in the UK.
Many species are rare or are becoming increasingly endangered. Some may grow locally common, others are on the red list, and one species is arguably our rarest plant.
Varying flower times within the same species, cross-breeding and annual erratic blooming can make locating and identifying difficult, but few other wildflowers pique our interest the same way orchids do.
The early purple orchid (Orchis maculata), like many orchids, as mottled leaves, which add to its appeal.
Observing Wild Orchids in the UK
Early Purple Orchid (Orchis maculata)
The first of our native orchids to come into bloom, it begins to flower in early April in the South, though may be as late as June in Scotland.
Purple flowers against spotted green foliage make this one of the most beautiful orchids in the UK. Tends to grow on chalky and limestone soils.
Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
The most common and widespread orchid in the UK. The lilac flowers have delicate deep pink markings. Produces no nectar, but is slightly fragrant. Has mottled foliage similar to the early purple and some marsh orchids.
Marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza spp.)
There are many different species and subspecies of Dactylorhiza in the U.K. that are referred to as marsh orchids. They are similar in appearance to the spotted orchids and also hybridise with each other, so accurate identification is best left for the experts.
Southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa).
The northern and southern marsh orchids tend to have plain leaves and their territories only really overlap in the Midlands, which aids with identification. They have dense purple flower spikes, whereas the early marsh orchid is pink with red markings.
Common twayblade (Neottia ovata)
Another common species of wild orchid throughout the UK. Although rather unremarkable, it could easily have been your first encounter with by a wild orchid but may have slipped by unnoticed. Two large oval leaves and small green flowers on a raceme (flower cluster) around a foot or more in height.
Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)
The remarkable flowers of this species set it apart from other wild orchids in the UK. Each flower looks as though a bumblebee is attending it. However, on closer inspection, it is an illusion. The velvet flowers deceptively lure in lustful drones to pollinate their flowers, mistaking it for a mate.
The fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) is closely related to the bee orchid, but much rarer.
Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)
Dense pyramidal clusters of pink-magenta flowers with a light vanilla scent. It is often found growing around marsh and spotted orchids, but is quite easy to tell apart due to its pyramidal shaped flowerheads.
Fragrant orchids (Gymnadenia spp.)
You are most likely to come across the common fragrant orchid, as is locally common throughout the U.K.
The lilac flowers are arranged similarly to the march and spotted orchids. However, the scent is much stronger, which helps with identification.
The pallid blooms of a bird's-nest orchid.
Bird’s-nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis)
One of the UK's most unusual plants. With brown, spectral flower spikes and no leaves, this orchid is a myco-heterotroph (formerly thought to be a saprophyte), relying on a parasitic relationship with a fungus to survive.
A real find if you stumble across one in mature beech woodland.
Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)
There’s only one site in the U.K. where this orchid grows, and it’s guarded at all times! Another intriguing beauty, the lady’s slipper orchid has yellow and maroon flowers held high above pleated foliage.
Once widespread in the Yorkshire Dales, it was a victim of over-picking and garden theft. Let’s hope that, in time, its numbers will increase.
Read more about the orchid family here: