Orchid ID guide: species to look for in Britain

Orchids can be found throughout the UK. Learn how to identify some of the more widely distributed species with our orchid guide

Purple flowers in a meadow
Published: March 31st, 2022 at 6:52 am

Orchid hunting is always a thrill, sometimes with a hint of magic. Their dust-like seeds, carried on the wind, mean that these charismatic wildflowers can appear almost anywhere, usually growing on calcareous soils, grassland meadows and disused landscapes.

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There are a staggering 28,000 species of orchid worldwide, and between 52 and 57 native species of orchid in the UK (numbers vary from source to source). Speaking very broadly, orchids flower from mid-spring through to late-summer, though specific flowering times and durations vary from species to species.

This identification guide explores 15 of the more widely distributed UK species, from the early purple orchid and pyramidal orchid to the marsh helleborine.

Pink wildflower
Heath spotted orchids (above) are dandier than common spotted orchids/Credit: Massimiliano Finzi, Getty

15 common orchids of Britain

Early purple orchid, Orchis mascula

Purple flower with a lot of flowers on a stem in the sunlight
Early purple orchid/Credit: Dmitry Potashkin, Getty

The early purple orchid can be found througout the UK. Usually the first species to bloom, often in bluebell woods. Attracts bees but inflorescences offer no nectar reward; by the time visitors discover the deceit, they’ve already pollinated the flowers.

Common spotted orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii

Pink flower in grass
Common spotted orchid/Credit: Getty

Common spotted orchids have dark spotted leaves and tapering inflorescences in shades of pink, marked with purple lines. Grassland and open woodlands, often in disturbed habitats like road verges, sometimes in large numbers.

Bee orchid, Ophrys apifera

Pink flower in grass
Bee orchid/Credit: Getty

Bee orchids are unmistakable. Flowers mimicking female bumblebees evolved to fool male bees into attempting to mate, so pollinating the flower, but British populations are almost always self-pollinated. Widespread, extending its range northwards.

Fly orchid, Ophrys insectifera

Unusual flower
Fly orchid/Credit: Getty

Fly orchids are widespread in southern England, Inconspicuous and easily overlooked in woodland and chalk downland. Small flowers, resembling flies with prominent antennae, are pollinated by digger wasps that attempt to mate with them.

Marsh helleborine, Epipactis palustris

White and pink flower
Marsh helliborine/Credit: Getty

Marsh helleborines are large, exotic flowers in showy spikes, in marshy habitats. Sometimes in large numbers in coastal dune slacks around England and Wales. Visited by flies, solitary bees, wasps and small beetles.

Pyramidal orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis

Purple flower in grass
Pyramidal orchid/Credit: Getty

Pyramidal orchids have a dense cone of flowers, the colour of strawberry ice cream, lengthens to become cylindrical with age. Limestone grassland and coastal dune slacks. Pollinated by moths, including day-flying burnet moths.

Bird’s nest orchid, Neottia nidus-avis

Orchid in grass
Bird's-nest orchid/Credit: Erhard Nerger, Getty

Bird’s nest orchids are strange, caramel coloured plants with no leaves or green chlorophyll, totally dependent on soil fungi for nutrition. Uncommon, scattered sporadic populations, usually in mature, shady beech woodland, sometimes old hazel coppice.

Greater butterfly orchid, Platanthera chlorantha

White flower on stem
Greater butterfly orchid/Credit: Getty

Greater butterfly orchids grow on unimproved calcareous grassland and woodland. Tall, graceful spike of widely-spaced, long-spurred white flowers rising from a pair of leaves. Conspicuous at dusk, when its powerful scent attracts long-tongued moths.

Fragrant orchid, Gymnadenia conopsia

Pink flower in grass
Fragrant orchid/Credit: David Chapman, Alamy

Fragrant orchids are sweetly scented, strongest towards evening, attracting butterflies and moths that drink from a long nectar spur behind each flower. Calcareous grassland throughout the UK, often in large numbers in old limestone quarries.

Green-winged orchid, Anacamptis morio

White flower in grass
Green-winged orchid/Credit: Jon Dunn, Alamy

Green-winged orchids are daintier than early purple orchid, with unspotted leaves. Sepals and petals form green-veined bonnet over each flower. Pollinated by bumblebees. Sensational when in large numbers amongst cowslips in old pastures.

Common twayblade, Neottia ovata

Wildflower in grass
Common twayblade orchid/Credit: weisschr, Getty

Tall spike of green flowers resembling a tiny human, rising from a single pair of broad leaves. Visited by many small insects. Widely distributed in woodland and grassland on calcareous soils.

Frog orchid, Dactylorhiza viridis

Green flower in grass
Frog orchid/Credit: Getty

Frog orchids can be found in short limestone and chalk grassland, sometimes in large numbers but easily overlooked, with its diminutive stature and greenish-purple flowers. Occurs throughout the UK. Visited by small beetles and wasps.

Northern marsh orchid, Dactylorhiza purpurella

Purple flower in grass
Northern marsh orchid/Credit: Lourdes Photography, Getty

Northern marsh orchids have robust spikes of intense magenta flowers, sometimes in spectacular numbers in marshy habitats and industrial brownfield sites. Hybridises with spotted orchids, producing intermediates. Replace in the south with similar southern marsh orchids.

Broad-leaved helleborine, Epipactis helleborine

Green and pink flower
Broad-leaved helleborine/Credit: Getty

Broad-leaved helleborines are the commonest helleborine, whose range extends into southern Scotland. Tall spikes of pinkish-green flowers, pollinated by wasps attracted by sweet nectar. Woodland edges, grassy verges, cuttings of disused railways.

Heath spotted orchid, Dactylorhiza maculata

Pink flower in grass
Heath spotted orchid/Credit: Getty
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Heath spotted orchids are similar to common spotted but daintier, favouring acid habitats like heathland and bogs. The broad lower lip of flowers has been likened to a frilled skirt with delicate purple embroidery.

Authors

Phil Gates taught biology at Durham University and writes for The Guardian’s Country Diary column.

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