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Orchids of the British Isles - Introduction
Animal Nomenclature | Orchids of Bogs, Fens and Marshes | Dactylorhiza | Helleborines (Cephalanthera) | Helleborines (Epipactis) | Insect Mimics
Lady's Slipper Orchid | Miscellaneous Orchids | Orchis | Saprophytes | Tresses | Twayblades
Broad-leaved Helleborine Epipactis helleborine
This is the tallest of the Epipactis group, growing up to 90cm in height. It also has the biggest leaves, which are broad and deeply ribbed. They grow in a spiral around the stem, then form leafy bracts where the flower buds emerge.
The outer petals and sepals are dusky pink in colour and slightly curved inwards towards the lip. The lip is formed into a cup shape, with a small lip at the front, looking almost like a gravy-boat. The cup inside is deep red and sticky with nectar. There can be up to 100 flowers on the stem, all gathered on one side. Plants that grow in the shade tend to have greenish flowers.
Pollination is done by two species of wasp, the German wasp and the tree wasp Dolichovespula sylvestris. These wasps push into the cup to take up the nectar, which causes the pollinia1 to become stuck to their back. When the wasp visits the next plant, the pollinia becomes attached to the stigma and pollinates that flower. The nectar is this orchid seems to have a strange effect on the wasps, making them appear drunk. Wasps have been recorded falling out of the flowers after drinking the nectar.
This orchid is very widespread and will grow in a variety of habitats. Its ability to colonise new forestry plantations has given it an advantage with ever-decreasing areas of old woodland.
Dark-red Helleborine Epipactis atrorubens
This little beauty is very particular about where it likes to grow; it has to be limestone and preferably an exposed cliff face or quarry. It's not surprising that this orchid's very existence hangs in the balance, with quarries being worked and cliff faces eroding and falling.
The leaves of this orchid are ovate and fold upwards, they are deeply veined and rough to the touch. The leaves grow up the flowering stem, forming leaf-like bracts to the tip of the stem - which can reach up to 30cm tall.
The flowers are usually deep wine-red in colour, though there is a cream-coloured form native to West Ross in Scotland. The flowers are held out from the hairy stem on the plant, by thick ovaries which are attached to the main stem. The five outer petals form an open star shape, surrounding the lip of the flower. The hypochile2 is green in colour. The lip itself is deep wine red, with a raised arrow-shaped platform; this platform is a good landing spot for insects to pollinate the flower. Above the lip is a yellow sac which contains the pollinia. The insect lands on the platform, brushes its head against the sac in an effort to reach the nectar held at the base of the flower. As the insect retreats from the flower, the sac is pushed upwards and pollinia is attached to the head of the insect.
Many insects have been recorded visiting this orchid, attracted by the scent of the flowers. Pollination is good and many seeds can be set, though most never germinate.
Dune Helleborine Epipactis dunensis
Until recently, it was thought the Dune Helleborine was a variant of the narrow-lipped helleborine. However, tests on the DNA of the plants suggest that they are separate species.
Growing up to 60cm, and producing up to thirty flowers, with broad yellow-green leaves, this orchid is a rare beauty. The stiff upright leaves, grow in pairs up the stem, forming bracts where the flowers emerge.
There is little difference between the flowers of this species, and the narrow-lipped helleborine; only the epichile which is wider and less pointed.
This orchid prefers moist areas, usually in coastal sand dunes, though it has been recorded spreading into nearby conifer plantations.
Green-flowered Helleborine Epipactis phyllanthes
This orchid can be quite variable. The woodland plants tend to be small and look weedy, while plants that grow in sand dunes are far more sturdy looking.
The leaves of this orchid are ovate and deeply ribbed, growing in pairs up the stem. They form leafy bracts where the flowers emerge.
The outer petals and sepals of the flower are green; they hang like bells form the large ovary attached to the stem of the plant. The flowers seldom fully open to reveal the green lip and epichile. Because this plant does not generally fully open its flowers, it is self-pollinating and is occasionally cleistogamous3.
This plant likes to grow in deciduous woodland containing beech, sweet chestnut, larch or pine. It can also be found growing in between wet sand dunes, protected from the elements.
'Lindisfarne' Helleborine Epipactis sancta
This orchid is confined to a small area of sand dunes on the island of Lindisfarne. The population is around 300 plants; fortunately for the orchids, they grow in a National Nature Reserve. Until recently, it was thought that this species of helleborine was also a variant of the narrow-lipped helleborine and the dune helleborine. Tests proved that it was genetically different from the other species and so it received its own name, Epipactis sancta.
There is little difference between this orchid and the dune helleborine. The epichile does not have a pink flush; instead it has a green tinge. It can grow to up to 60cm and bear as many as 30 flowers.
Narrow-lipped Helleborine Epipactis leptochila
The leaves of this helleborine grow in pairs up the 60cm stem. They are yellow-green in colour and form bracts where the flowers appear. The leaves are floppy, making the plant look like it needs water.
The flowers on this orchid are very pretty. The outer sepals and petals are green, quite often with a pink edge. They form a star shape, the lower two petals being longer than the upper petals and sepals. The hypochile is pink and curves round to form a cup, with an arrow-shaped epichile which is also flushed pink.
The orchid likes to grow in two types of habitat. In southern England, it likes to grow in beech or hornbeam woodland on chalky soil. In northern England and Scotland, it likes a very different kind of habitat - mainly under birch and, strangely, on river gravels polluted with lead. This helleborine has suffered loss of habitat, where deciduous woodland has been cleared or replaced by conifer woodland.
Violet Helleborine Epipactis purpurata
Despite its name, the flowers of the violet helleborine are mostly green in colour. There can be up to 100 flowers, tightly packed on one side of the stem. The outer petals and sepals are green and form a triangular shape surrounding the lip. The lip is shaped like a blunt arrow, with two raised bumps at the base of the lip. These bumps are rose pink, with pale brown lines on the hypochile4.
The leaves are deeply ribbed and grey-green in colour. They grow in pairs up the stem, which can reach up to 60cm. The upper leaves form bracts, where the flower buds grow. The leaf bases and leaf sheaths are often violet in colour, hence the name.
There is a species of this orchid that totally lacks any chlorophyll. Its leaves and stem are vibrant pink, with white flowers. It has been recorded in parts of Wiltshire, Surrey and Sussex.
This plants likes to grow in woods, preferably beech, and on chalky soil. However, it is also found in hazel coppices, with plenty of shade.
Male cuckoo wasps are known to pollinate this orchid, and the hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus has also been recorded visiting it.
Although this orchid is still abundant in the southern half of Britain, it has decreased over the last 50 years, due to loss of habitat.
Young's Helleborine Epipactis Helleborine var youngiana
Easily confused with the broad-leaved helleborine, this orchid is a variation of that species. It was first discovered in 1976 and thought to be a separate species until research into the genetics of this orchid were carried out.
The leaves are broad and grow in a spiral up the stem. They are greenish-yellow in colour, unlike the broad-leaved helleborine, which has dark green leaves.
The only differences in the flowers are the lip and colour of the bloom. The cup is more shallow, and the lip forms a pointed arrow-shaped epichile coming out from the cup. The flowers are pale green to cream in colour.
This orchid is a rare variation, only occurring in a few places around the British Isles. It is most often found growing with other Epipactis, and is rarely found on its own