Spikes of vivid magenta flowers rise from rosettes of shiny green leaves that may be speckled with purplish blotches. The flower spikes can grow as tall as 15 inches, and the individual flowers sometimes have a paler ‘throat’ with deep mauve spots. Each spike has between six and 20 flowers, borne on a fleshy stem which is green at the base and blends into deep red further up.
The website www.woodlands.co.uk states that “…flowers of orchids are very variable in shape and form but the flower is always two-lipped.”
About the Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula), it says:
“…there are three sepals. Petals and one sepal form the ‘hood’ or helmet of the flower, and the two other sepals are erect and back against each other.”
Unless you’re a botanist, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish sepals from petals when they appear very similar, but on inspecting the Early Purple Orchid you can see that at the back of each single flower is a long, upward-curving spur or hood. The tricky job of identifying orchids can revolve around the shape, colour and size of this spur.
The Early Purple Orchid is a master of deception, because its spur doesn’t contain any nectar – although that is the impression it wishes to give to eager pollinating insects such as bees and wasps.
These beautiful plants tend to prefer non-acidic conditions, and are often found in hedgerows, roadside verges, woods and open meadows that have been left undisturbed. While one source claims that they have a scent similar to lilies-of-the-valley, another compares the odour to that of a tom cat. Proof that all perfume is subjective!
According to Plantlife, this is the ‘long purple’ flower which Shakespeare describes in Ophelia’s garland:
“…Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.”
Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 7
The liberal shepherds were no doubt thinking of the drink or potion made from the orchid flowers, which had a reputation for enhancing a man’s virility.
Early Purple Orchids are in flower from April to June, and we saw plenty in the hedgerows and verges of Lismore in Argyll. Keep an eye open for them, because they are truly beautiful!
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf