I’ve always loved wild orchids, and living in Dorset I’m able to visit many species all growing within a few miles of my home. During the spring and summer these flowers appear on the chalk downs, in woods and meadows, pastures, dunes, roadside verges, bogs and heaths and some in unmown gardens and brown field sites. Before setting out I will usually check the NBN Atlas for local records and take a good field guide with me as orchids can be tricky to identify when they start to hybridise with each other. Many species are protected by law, so great care should be taken when photographing them not to disturb the plants or the micro-habitats they occupy by “gardening” and moving removing elements in the photograph. This post shares some of the orchid species that I have encountered close to my home in Dorset.
The early spider orchid, Ophrys sphegodes, is the symbol for the Dorset Wildlife Trust, and is one of the rarer orchids found in Dorset. Though were it does grow it can occur in good numbers. This tiny orchid prefers to grow in very short cropped chalk grass and flowers fom mid-March to late April. The dark insect shape flowers will turn pale yellow once pollinated by male solitary bees.
Early spider orchids grow in large numbers on the Purbeck cliffs and visitors come from far and wide to see them at Durlston Country Park and Dancing Ledge. Starting to flower at the same time are the early purple orchids, Orchis mascula.
The early purple orchid is the first orchid to flower in the coppiced woods around the village where I live. Its flowering coincides with that of the bluebells and woods such as Garston Woods near Sixpenny Handley boast large numbers. This orchid is a common sight in the country lanes and appears along old hedgerows and ghost woods. It is also numerous on the chalk downs and can be found in good numbers at sites like Badbury Rings and Fontmell Down.
The early purple orchid is often found flowering in the company of bluebells, the purples, pale pink and magentas of this orchid’s flowers are stunning peppering the carpets of hyacinth blue the bluebells create. The plant is pollinated by Buff-tailed Bumblebees, cuckoo bees and some solitary bees and flowers from April to July. It can sometimes be confused with the Green-winged orchid, Anacamptis morio, below.
The green winged orchid is far less common in the county, but in the locations where it does grow, usually damp pasture and meadows, it can appear in large numbers, which is a beautiful spectacle. It flowers in mid-April to mid-May, and the flowers can be pink, purple or whiie. It is characterised by the green viens on the hood of the flower which give the orchid its name.
One of my most favourite orchids is the burnt orchid, Neotinea ustulata, the county flower of Wiltshire, and found on the border between Wilts and Dorset. There are two varieties of this orchid, the early flowering variety is shown in these images and it is a smaller plant than the later flowering one. Both are present at Martin Down NNR, though given their diminutive size and the large area of the reserve finding them is not guaranteed.
The early flowering variety ca be found in bloom in May and the later in July and August. I have found both at Martin Down NNR over the years. While the orchids usually have a dark pink top to the flower spikes, occasionally they are recorded with flowers of all white. The burnt orchid is rare and decreasing in the wild.
Locally abundant in the Dorset countryside is the common spotted orchid, Dactylorhisa fuchsii. Easily confused with the Heath spotted and regularly hybridising with fragrant and frog orchids and occasionally with marsh orchids. This orchid can be found growing in open woodlands, neutral and chalk grasslands and rough ground and can collonise old brown field sites.
The common spotted orchid is pollinated by hoverflies, Buff-tailed bumblebees, female cuckoo bees and beetles. It flowers between mid May and early August and I often encounter them on walks in the local woods and pastures here in north Dorset.
The pale and exotic beauty of the greater butterfly orchid, Platanthera chlorantha, is always a delight to encounter. Found on the chalk downland and in ancient deciduous woodland. One of the sites I always visit for butterfly orchids is Badbury rings, just outside of Wimborne. This hillfort is home to many of Dorset’s orchids, and the butterfly orchids are among the first to flower on the ramparts.
It is very similar to the lesser butterfly orchid, and can be distinguished by the wider gap between the pollinia (which are parallel in the lesser butterfly orchid). This orchid is pollinated by the Silver Y mothand also Elephant and Small Elephant Hawk-moths. It flowers between May and June.
Another orchid that can be found at Badbury rings is the Bee orchid, Ophrys apifera. This orchid can also be found growing along road verges, on lawns in sand dunesin pits and quarries and calcareous gasslands. Whilst the flowers imic bees, the plant is almost entirely self-pollinated. It can be found in flower in June and July, and there are many varieties and forms to look for.
Less showy than some of its relaives is the Twayblade, viewed closely the flowers remind me of little acrobats tumbling down the flower spike. This orchid is easy to miss as its green colour can camouflage it. It is a common orchid, found in many habitats across the county and country.
It is pollinated by sawflies, springtails and ichneumons, and visited by bees, attracted to the nectar the plant produces, but they ae too big to be effective pollinators. It can be found flowering between late April and July.
The pyramidal orchid, Anacamtis pyramidalis, flowers between May and July, and it’s unmistakable bright pink flowes can appear in large numbers on the chalk grasslands, road verges, meadows, dunes and industrial sites. This is an orchid species which appears to be responding well to the challenges of our changing climate and shows signs of expanding it’s range. It is pollinated by six-spot burnet moths, large skipper butterflies, buff-tailed bumble bees and forester moths, and can be found in great numbers at Badbury rings.
The final orchid in this post, though far from the last of those you may find in Dorset, is the Autumn Lady’s tresses, Spiranthes autumnalis, which flowers at the end of the summer in mid-August to September. It can be found growing on the chalk downs in north Dorset. It needs short grass to do well and can appear in lawns and receaion grounds and church yards. This is one of my favourte orchids to encounter in the wild. Pollinated by bumble bees it can take 11 years from seed to the first leaves being formed, and several more years before flowers will be produced.
There any many other wild orchids which can be found growing in Dorset, and as the evenings draw in the nights are longer I will be spending many time planning encounters with wild orchids for next year. I hope one day to be able to photograph all the species present in the county, and then maybe travel a little further afield to meet some more.
Thank you, Jo x
Britain’s Orchids. A field guide to the orchids of Great Britain and Ireland. By Sean Cole and Mike Waller.Wild Guides. 2020.
Orchids of Britain and Ireland. A field and Site Guide. By Anne and Simon Harrap, A&C Black Ltd. 2005.
Britain’s Orchids. By David Lang. Wild Guides. 2004.