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Learn How to Identify 9 Beautiful and Rare Wild UK Orchids like a Pro

Published on June 22nd 2019

Southern Marsh Orchid,Jersey

by Alan_Lagadu. 183064703

A purple flower in a field

We'd like to highlight some of the most beautiful orchids native to the UK so that you can spot and identify these magical and sometimes rare species on your adventures.

Elusive treasures

When we hear the word ‘orchid’, it is often the exotic species that spring to mind or the ones you see on supermarkets' shelves. So it may come as somewhat of a surprise to discover that we have 56 native species of orchid in the UK.
Varying flower times within the same species, cross-breeding and annual erratic blooming can make locating and identifying difficult. Still, few other wildflowers pique our interest the same way orchids do.

Protected by law

Many species of UK orchids 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.
In the UK, all orchids are protected by Section 13 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This means you should never uproot wild orchids without authorisation.
A purple flower and green grass
The early purple orchid (Orchis maculata), like many orchids, has mottled leaves, which add to its appeal.

8 Wild Orchids to Spot on your Adventures

1. Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula)

The Early Purple Orchid is the first of our native orchids to come into bloom, with flowers appearing as early as April in the South.
Purple flowers against spotted green foliage make this one of the most beautiful orchids in the UK. It tends to grow on chalky and limestone soils.
Identification Tips
  • Use the time of year to decide whether your orchid is an Early Purple Orchid.
  • They will only be found growing in areas with alkaline soils, such as areas near cliffs and rocky parts of hills, woodland and grassland.
  • The bracts (the stem which holds the flowers) are less than 2mm, and the same colour purple as the flower petals.
A close up of some purple Orchis mascula flowers

Early Purple Orchid

Orchis mascula

A close up of a flower garden

2.Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)

Common Spotted Orchids are the most common and widespread orchid in the UK. The lilac flowers have delicate deep pink markings, although, sometimes, the flowers can be pale pink or white. This With its mottled foliage, it can be difficult to tell apart the Early Purple and some of the Marsh Orchids.
Identification tips
  • The leaves are covered with spots!
  • Blooms in the summer between June and August, helping to distinguish them from Early Purple Orchids.
  • Found across many habitats, including woodland, grassland, cliff land, old quarries and roadside verges.
  • If you think it's a Common Spotted Orchid, then it most probably is! If the flowering time, habitat and description all seem to match, it's a fairly accurate identification!

3. Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza spp.)

There are many different species and subspecies of Dactylorhiza in the UK, referred to as Marsh Orchids. They are similar in appearance to the Spotted Orchids and hybridise, so accurate identification is best left for the experts!
The northern and southern marsh orchids tend to have plain leaves, and their territories only really overlap in the Midlands, which helps with identification. They have dense purple flower spikes, whereas the Early Marsh Orchid is pink with red markings.
Identification Tips
  • Marsh orchids tend not to have spots on the leaves, but this isn't always the case!
A pink flower on a plant
Southern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa).

4. Common Twayblade Orchid (Neottia ovata)

The Common Twayblade Orchid is another common species of wild orchid found throughout the UK. Although rather unremarkable, it could easily have been your first encounter with 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.
Identification Tips
  • Can easily be mistaken for grass or a weed!
  • Commonly stumbled upon when out walking in chalky, alkaline grassland or shrubland areas.
  • You can see the two broad, elongate leaves as early as March. But the flowers can be sighted between May-July.
A close up of a flower

5. 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.
Identification Tips
  • Can be found growing in habitats with slightly alkaline soils, such as grassland, banks and quarries.
  • Flowers between June and July.
  • The flower itself comprises 3 large, triangular, light purple petals, with a protruding purple-brown petal.
A close up of a bee orchid flower in a grassland habitat
Pictured: Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera
A close up of a flower
Pictured: The Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera) is closely related to the bee orchid, but much rarer.

6. Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)

Pyramidal orchids possess dense pyramidal clusters of pink-magenta flowers with a light vanilla scent. It is often found growing around the marsh and spotted orchids but is quite easy to tell apart due to its pyramidal-shaped flowerheads.
Identification Tips
  • Flowers are arranged in a dense cluster of flowers which come to a point, similar to a pyramid!
  • It can be possible to find white versions.
  • It thrives in warmer parts of the country, in habitats with slightly alkaline or chalky soils.
  • It flowers in June and July.

7. Fragrant Orchids (Gymnadenia spp.)

Three main species can be found across the UK: the Common fragrant-orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea), Marsh fragrant-orchid (Gymnadenia densiflora) and Heath fragrant-orchid (Gymnadenia borealis). You are most likely to come across the Common Fragrant Orchid.
The lilac flowers of the Common Fragrant Orchid are arranged similarly to the Marsh and Spotted Orchids. However, the scent is much stronger, which helps with identification.
Identification Tips
  • Gives off a strong, sweet scent during the evenings.
  • The flowerheads are elongate and can be as tall as 15cm.
  • The flowers themselves are purple-pink and possess a 3 lobed lip.
  • Many sightings occur at higher altitudes.

8. 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.
Identification Tips
  • This plant is scarce, but you're most likely to stumble upon it in southern England.
  • They thrive in ancient Beech woodland.
  • They're in bloom from May to July.
A close up of a flower
The pallid blooms of a bird's-nest orchid.

9. Lady’s Slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)

There’s only one site in the UK 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.
Identification Tips
  • This orchid is only found in the Yorkshire Dales, so it's unlikely you'll come across this orchid anywhere else.
  • Visits are not advised due to it being a Critically Endangered species.
A close up of a flower
Read more about the orchid family here:

Candide Festival of Flowers

Have you seen any Orchids while out and about on your adventures? Please share any pictures of your blooms on social media using the hashtag #ShowUsYourBlooms
Most importantly, we really want to celebrate everyone coming together in floral glory, post-pandemic, so pop on a post and show us your blooms!

Now you've learnt all about wild Orchids, how about trying your hand at growing some at home?

Edited July 2021

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