Early-purple Orchid

Early-purple Orchids enjoy the serpentine soils of the Lizard.
Photo: Steve Townsend

Scientific name: Orchis mascula

Other common names: Adder’s Meat, Bloody Butchers, Goosey Ganders, Kecklegs

What to look for:

  • Flowers : Purple-pink orchid flowers arranged in a cone-shaped raceme up the stem. Each flower has a lobed lower lip under a hood formed by the upper petals.
  • Leaves : Long, dark green blades, arranged in basal rosette, and usually (but not always) with dark purple blotches elongated in the direction of the leaf length.
  • Height : 20 to 40 cm.
  • Where : Grassland, woodland, cliff-tops, on base-rich soils.
  • When : Flowers from April to June.
  • Habit : Single plants, often occurring in groups.
  • Similar to : Common and Heath Spotted-orchids are found in similar habitats but start to flower later, and the leaf blotches, where they are present, are arranged transversely across the leaf; the Loose-flowered Orchid is only found in the Channel Isles, or occasionally in SE England where it has been introduced.

Early-purple Orchids like base-rich to neutral soils – this is why they are an early spring star of the serpentine habitats of the Lizard – but, other than that, they are not overly choosy. You can find this beautiful purple-pink orchid sprinkled about in old woodland, on coastal cliff-tops, in meadows, and along the side of the road. Be careful if smelling it, though: Early-purple Orchid flowers start out with a lovely scent, but as they start to fade they smell more like a tomcat!

Given the wide variety of habitats where it can be found, you might think this would be a common plant. It once was, but is declining, suffering from farming intensification and urban developments.

Did you know…?

…The species name mascula means virile and the genus name Orchis means ‘testicle’: this is most likely a reference to the pair of tubers growing beneath the ground for each plant. It used to be believed generally that if the shape of any plant was similar to a body part, then it would be useful in treating ailments of that body part. Orchids were used as aphrodisiacs (Mabey, 1997).

…A literary star: Early-purple Orchids were included in Ophelia’s garland of flowers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, referred to as ‘long purples’.

More information and references:

Mabey, R., 1997. Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Published: April 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Steve Townsend