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A Beginners Guide to Orchids

Submitted by Peter Orchard on Thu, 15/08/2019 - 15:47

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 distiguishing 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.

You will need to note all of these factors before turning to your field guide for help. In your field guide you will probably find around thirty five or so orchids listed along with some helleborines which are closely related to orchids so, in effect, you are probably looking for one species from just fifty maximum. Your task is actually not even that difficult as there are probably no more than twenty species commonly found in Dorset. 

The insect look-a-likes are quite easy as the most frequent you will encounter is the bee orchid but early in the year on the Purbeck cliffs you may also encounter early spider orchid. The wasp orchid is a subtle variation of the bee orchid which you may also chance upon on the Purbeck cliffs.

 

The oddities, too, are fairly straight forward. The bird's-nest orchid can be found in beech woods and has no chlorophyll and are pale coloured. It is easier to confuse this with toothwort than with other orchids. Autumn lady's-tresses is totally unmistakable because of its unique appearance and common twayblade is also quite distinctive but could be dismissed as greater plantain rather than another orchid. 

 

That brings us to the spikes! This is where it gets more difficult but some are quite distinctive. The greater butterfly orchid for example is cream coloured whereas most other spikes range from mauve through pink to purple. The conical shape identifies the pyramidal orchid leaving just another seven to consider.

This little chart may help:

SPECIES

MARKS

COLOUR

HABITAT

Month

Common Spotted Orchid

Spots on leaves/stem

Mauve

Grass and woods

June/July

Heath Spotted Orchid

Spots on leaves/stem

Mauve/White

Heath and bog

June/July

Early Marsh Orchid

 No spots

Mauve

Damp meadows

May/June

Southern Marsh Orchid

 No spots

Purple

Damp meadows

June/July

Early Purple Orchid

 Spots on leaves/stem

Purple

Woods and grass

April/May

Green-winged Orchid

 No spots

Purple

Grass (short turf)

May/June

Fragrant orchid

 No spots

Pink

Chalk grass

June/Julky

Just a final word of warning! Some of the spike species readily hybridise and can make things even more difficult.

In addition to those mentioned you can also find bog, fly and frog orchid in Dorset as well as the marsh helleborine.

Happy orchid hunting and please, if you find them, leave them alone!

 

Peter Orchard