True botanists will probably cringe at what I am about to write as it is totally unscientific! Sadly, I think science can sometimes get in the way of the casual observers enjoyment of nature by introducing difficult names and complex structures which can serve to confuse or put off we non-scientists.
However, in my opinion, the orchids encountered in Dorset fall in to three types, the spikes, the insect look-a-likes and the oddities! As I warned you, that is not scientific but it is a starting point in identification. Once you have decided which of these three it might be then you need to look for distinguishing features such as the presence of spots on the leaves and stem, the position and shape of the leaves, the structure of the flower head and so on. Finally, and yet still important, the habitat in which it is occurring and the time of year it is flowering.
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Common Spotted Orchid: spot on in summer
This flower is an orchid, the leaves are spotted and it is widespread so I suppose common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) is an appropriate name for it. I cannot help thinking, though, that calling something as lovely as this 'common' rather devalues it. This is by far the most frequently encountered orchid in Dorset, a county with a good number of orchid species. It can be found growing in woods, on chalk grassland, on the heath, on the sea cliffs and in other scrubby areas.
Like many orchid species it comes in so many variations depending on its environment and it hybridises with some other species, mainly the marsh orchids, that the presence of spots on the leaves of common spotted orchids can be very confusing and misleading. The flowers can vary from very pale pink (almost white) to a much more intense colour, especially in damper areas. Allthough other orchids have spotted leaves in summer the spotted leaves are a pretty definite diagnostic feature of this the common spotted orchid as the other spotted leaved orchids are primarily spring flowering. The flower heads can be short spikes and sometimes quite substantial spikes, again I think that depends on moisture and nutrients.
If you want to see common spotted orchids at their best and in some profusion I suggest Durlston is a great place to find them.
Heath Spotted Orchid: spot the difference
Identifying orchids can be quite tricky! Some species, although different, can be very alike. Other species can be quite variable within their own kind. Some species will hybridise freely with similar species growing nearby. All of these are an issue when faced with either heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) or common spotted orchid! These two species are not the only ones to have spots on the leaves either ... and they hybridise with marsh orchids.
In general, however, heath spotted orchids are usually found on acid soils, the type of soil that forms our heathland whereas common spotted orchid is more normally associated with chalk and limestone grasslands and meadows. So location is a key here. However, the only sure way is to look at the lower lip of an individual flower in the spike. The heath spotted has a broad lip with a rather inconspicuous tooth whereas common spotted has three teeth on the the lip. The southern marsh orchid lacks a pronounced tooth on the lip, generally has no spots on the leaves and is usually found in damper environments. Hybrids, however, can really confuse the issue!
Heath spotted are usually paler in colour than the common spotted but common spotted can even be white sometimes, southern marsh are usually a much deeper purple than the other two.
So, spotting the difference can be quite difficult, especially for the casual observer like me.
Early Marsh Orchid: tell me the old, old story
The early marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata) can be found throughout Europe but, sadly, in Britain it is the same old story, it is nowhere near as common as it once was due to the extensive draining of wet meadows to 'improve' them for agriculture. Just how many species of plant and animal have gone this way since 1940?
The early marsh orchid was once a common orchid of damp, but firm, grassland areas but is has now gone from much of the British Isles apart from some protected areas. It also freely hybridises with other marsh orchids which has not helped its cause either. To make matters more complicated still there are four subspecies just to confuse the issue. Even true early marsh orchids can vary in size and flower colouring and DNA testing is now used to establish where true specimens exist.
It flowers in June and in Dorset by far the best place to find this plant would seem to be on the heaths where the ground is damp but not generally sodden and where there is grass rather than dense heather. Hartland Moor and nearby Stoborough Heath are examples of suitable habitat where they occur.
Southern Marsh-orchid: a spotless leopard?
I am constantly advising people to be wary of English names when trying to decide on a species identification, common names can be so misleading but for once here is one that actually has an accurate name; the southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa).
Firstly, that magnificent, pink/purple multi-flowered spike could only be an orchid so that is one part of the name confirmed. Secondly, it grows almost (ALMOST!) exclusively in damp marshy areas such wet meadows, fens, bogs and so on and so 'marsh' is appropriate and finally it only grows in the south of England and mainly in south western England hence it is quite common in Dorset.
So southern marsh orchid it is but what makes it different to other orchids of similar appearance? Firstly, the absence of spots on the leaves means that it cannot be common spotted or heath spotted orchid. It is a much bolder flower than the smaller early marsh orchid and it grows in the south so cannot be northern marsh orchid. Other orchids are unlikely to be growing in wet habitat preferring chalk or woodland environments. As always with orchids, be aware that they do hybridise and common spotted/southern marsh crosses are not uncommon! It flowers later than early marsh orchid, flowering from late May through until July.
It occurs in some other parts of Europe and is known in some places as the leopard marsh orchid which seems strange as it has no spots.
Fragrant Orchid: making sense of it
It seems strange that, in general, our orchids do not have a scent, they are such splendid plants that you might expect perfume as well as looks. One orchid that defies this trend is the aptly named fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea) which does indeed produce a strong, sweet smell. This is helpful because being a purple spiked flower head like many other orchids in Britain it is an easy way to identify it from the other look-a-likes.
There are other differences between the fragrant orchids and its cousins. The flowers are a very pale pink not deep purple or mauve. It is quite a short, slim flower spike with the individual flowers in the spike less densely packed than in many other orchids. Add to this very narrow, pale green leaves that lack spots an then put them all together with the scent and you have it - a fragrant orchid.
This is very much a plant of chalk grassland and although there is a lot of chalk in Dorset I understand that this particular orchid is only found in three or four sites on iron age hill forts where the ground has been undisturbed for centuries.
Pyramidal Orchid: What is the point?
Orchids can sometimes be a bit tricky to identify for certain but the pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) is quite distinctive because of its 'pyramidal' shape after which it is named. It is also one of the most common orchids on our grasslands and downlands and they quite numerous at Durlston and other locations along the sea cliffs and the Purbeck Ridge. They are not confined to calcareous soils, however, and they can turn up almost anywhere including roadsides and other artificial environments where soil has been moved or perhaps imported. They require a specific fungus to be present in the soil before they will flower!
The tight cluster of pink/purple (and occasionally white) flowers form a definite conical shape as the lower flowers in the head open before the upper ones. They have a single slender stem without leaves, the leaves can be found as a rosette at the base down in the grass. They flower from late June until mid August; these lovely flowers are welcome addition to our summer flora in Dorset.
Early purple orchid: as it says on the label ...
There is undoubtedly something special about orchids, they are quite dramatic flowers compared to many of our other native species.
As it's name suggests the early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) is one of the earliest orchids to flower; flowering from April through until June depending on location and the weather. They are usually in fine flower at Durlston National Nature Reserve in April and early May. The early purple orchid is quite catholic in habitat choice, it being found both on grassland and in woodland, especially along woodland rides where there is plenty of light. It can sometimes occur on roadside verges.
It is a tall species with multiple lobed purple flower heads appearing along a central stem, like many such flowers they open from the bottom upwards. The leaves are lomg and pointed (lanceolate) and are at the base of the stem, they can sometimes be spotted or blotched so take care not to confuse them with other spotted species.
It is not really common in Dorset but it is widespread and can be found almost anywhere that conditions are right.
Green-winged orchid: surviving on a wing and a prayer
Along with the early spider orchid and the early purple orchid there is a third orchid in flower early in the season, the green-winged orchid (Orchis morio). It grows generally on limestone grassland and as a result occurs at Durlston national nature reserve but it also grows in some profusion at Corfe Mullen Meadows, a Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve and that is a damp pasture and certainly not limestone!
This is very much a flower of undisturbed meadows and grassland. It likes to be left in peace and once the ground is ploughed the flower is as good as gone forever. This is why it is now very local and found only in long established grassland areas. Where it does occur, however, there can be lots of them.
Usually 'stumpier' than the taller, more elegant but similar early purple orchid, and lacking the purple blotches on the leaves, the green-winged orchid is, I believe, named after the distinctive way the leaves come out from the base like a pair of wings.
A very rare orchid in Dorset.
An elusive species of wet bogs; not uncommon but hard to find.
A local orchid occasionally found on chalk downland.
Common Twayblade: lost in the wilderness
Most of us think of orchids as being colourful, striking flowers that stand out in a crowd but I suppose if there is a poor relation it has to be the common twayblade (Neottia ovata). It is undoubtedly an orchid but it is so plain it is just very easy to overlook.
Common twayblade is one the most common orchids here in Dorset found in both woodland settings and in grassy places, especially where the soil is calcareous. It is, however, all green: the flower, the stem and the two leaves are all just green and so it disappears amongst the grasses and other vegetation! It can be quite small and yet, in favourable areas the flower spikes can grow to nine inches or so in height, even bigger some times. The two large leaves that appear at the base of the stem give it its name - two blades or twayblade.
If you do find one take a closer look at the individual flowers on the central spike. I think they look like a little people!
In honesty, this flower looks like a great plantain and I am sure I have passed it by and dismissed it as a plantain more than once!
Greater butterfly orchid: a creamy vanilla treat
Finding an orchid is always a bit of a thrill! They are set apart from other flowers, they have that certain something extra. People will go miles to see a rare orchid just as others will go miles to see a rare bird.
One of the largest and most striking orchids you will find in Dorset is this one, the greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha). Orchids are often named after something they resemble (bee, spider, frog, wasp, etc) but I find it hard to see any resemblance with a butterfly here. That said, it is a lovely flower. It has a spike of creamy white flowers that have a feint vanilla scent.
Not common, the greater butterfly orchid can be found in woodlands and grassland where the soil is calcareous so north Dorset is probably the most likely area, particularly Fontmell Down where they are numerous in June. They may not be common but, if you find one, you will probably find several. There is a lesser butterfly orchid which is much the same size but the individual flowers are apparently narrower and it has a stronger scent. I am not sure that the lesser grows in Dorset but I may be wrong. I would be happy if someone could enlighten me if it does!
Bee Orchid: to bee or not to bee?
As summer arrives so do the bulk of the orchids and the downlands of Dorset start to reveal their best kept secrets of the winter months. Although an exotic looking species the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) is fairly common on our chalk grassland, both by the sea and more inland, as well as in our quarries, especially on Portland.
This flower is called the bee orchid because it looks like a bumble bee. Some might say this plant has evolved to look like a bee to encourage male bumble-bees to try and mate with it and so spread pollen; others might claim the resemblance is purely coincidental and the connection is man-made based purely on appearance rather than botanical development. It is true that they can be pollinated by bees but personally I cannot believe any self-respecting male bumble-bee would mistake this flower head for the real thing!
The bee orchid is always a welcome sight as it brings variety and a bit of excitement to botanical walks in summer! There is an unusual sub-species known as the wasp orchid that occurs on the Purbeck cliffs but I have never seen one.
A very rare orchid in Dorset
Early Spider Orchid: the flower of Dorset
Dorset has a few floral specialities and this is certainly one of them, the early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes). This plant is only on the chalk cliffs of the south coast of England from Dorset to Kent, but the main populations are here on the Purbeck limestone cliffs of Dorset.
The early spider orchid is quite a small plant with a flower that looks like the body of an orb spider, hence its name. This appearance is purely coincidental of course and a man made connection. It has nothing to do with attracting spiders to pollinate it! They are pollinated by small solitary wasps and bees.
The early spider orchid comes in to flower in April and continues to bloom until late May, occasionally in to June. If you want to see them I recommend a visit to Durlston Country Park where there are hundreds of them but they also occur on the Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Townsend, Swanage, and the flower is the emblem of the Trust.
Autumn Ladys-tresses: spiralling down
In late summer on the downs, notably the Purbeck Ridge and along the limestone sea cliffs, we are blessed with good numbers of this lovely little plant, autumn lady's-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis).
It is a member of the orchid family and, I believe, it is a nationally scarce plant, so this is something of a local specialty. It is not that big and grows amongst short turf on dry, calcareous soils, such as the chalk and limestones on the English Channel coast. Although not big, it is quite distinctive and there is little to confuse it with. The small flowers grow in spirals up the central stem, hence the 'spiralis' in its scientific name.
In 2010 there was a count of the flowers at Durlston Country Park and over 1,000 were found but this photograph was of a specimen on Ballard Down near Swanage and I have seen them at various other places including the Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Stonehill Down and at nearby Steeple Hill on the Purbeck Ridge.
Orchids are always special to find and the downs are good for a range of species but late in the year it is just this little gem.
A rare orchid species in Dorset.
A rare orchid species in Dorset
Birdsnest Orchid: the root of the matter
There is certainly something special about orchids and one always has a sense of seeing something special when one encounters one (or lots!). They are quite different in appearance to other floral families and even within the orchids you find many variations. The bird's-nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) is certainly unique amongst British orchids as it is parasitic and therefore does not have chlorophyll. The result is a pale coloured plant tinged with yellow rather than green and with no leaves.
I said orchids were unique and different in appearance to other flowers but there is always an exception to every rule! This one could easily be mistaken at first glance for other parasitics plants such as the broomrapes or toothwort so care needs to be taken. The bird's-nest orchid, however, is usually found in woodland and predominantly under beech trees and that is very different habitat to broomrapes which are generally parasites of grassland flowers such as wild carrot, knapweed, bedstraw and the like. Toothwort is parasitic on hazel so that helps separate the two similar species.
It gets its name from the appearance of its roots rather than from the appearance of its flower.
The bird's-nest orchid is quite common in parts of Europe and whilst not rare in Britain it is far from common here. It can be found in suitable woodland to the north and west of Dorset.