Where to see wild orchids
Wild orchids in your backgarden
The wild orchid is a flower that evokes images of brilliantly sculpted colourful petals wafting their scent in far-flung exotic locations. But you needn't go that far to see them. Surprisingly there are 56 species of this beauty just waiting to be discovered here in the UK throughout the summer months.
Monkey orchid © Gavin Hageman
Most would recognise the distinctively sculpted shape of an orchid, one of the world's most highly-evolved flowering plants. It has a number of features that make it distinct:
The orchid owes a large amount of its existence to its unusual relationship with fungi. Orchid seeds can be buried for months, even years, waiting for the right conditions to germinate and grow. To survive during this period the seed relies on a supply of nutrients provided by fungi. The rare adult ghost orchid, with no green leaves, relies entirely on its relationship with its partner fungi to supply all nutrients required for survival.
Halwill Nature Reserve © Devon Wildlife Trust
Most orchids do not have this extreme relationship, instead depending on a combination of photosynthesis and fungal partnership to survive. In a number of orchids, the time between germination and flowering can be in excess of five years.
In the UK wild orchids are found across a very broad range of natural habitats including woodland, grassland or meadow, limestone pavements, marshes and fens, heaths and moors, and sand dunes. Wild orchids have even been spotted reclaiming managed sites like abandoned pits, quarries, along railway lines and roadside verges.
Each individual orchid has its own blooming season. These can run from as early as April in the case of the early-purple orchid to as late as September for the autumn ladies tresses.
A guide from The Wildlife Trusts' Tanya Perdikou on the best places to observe the orchids on their nature reserves
The fragrant orchids
Fragrant orchid © Philip Precey
Fragrant orchids are widespread in the UK, so a good place for the amateur orchid-spotter to start. There are three common varieties: common, marsh and heath. Look out for them standing about 10-15cm above the ground, with pink, perfumed petals. Common fragrant orchids are found mostly on chalky soils whilst marsh and heath orchids grow in the areas reflected in their name. All three varieties can also be found on stabilised dunes, road verges, railway banks and abandoned quarries.
Fragrant orchids can be found at many reserves and SSSIs across the UK, including Milford Cutting (Ulster), Catherington Down (Hampshire and Isle of Wight) and Miller's Dale and Hartington Meadows both in Derbyshire.
The common-spotted orchid
Common-spotted orchid at Knapp and Papermill, Worcs WT © Paul Lane
The common spotted orchid is the UK's most widespread. It produces some fabulous flowering displays across a wide range of habitats from dry grasslands to wet meadows and marshes.
Alongside these more common specimens, the UK is also home to many rare and captivating varieties, like the dark-red helleborine, bee, military and monkey orchids
The dark-red helleborine
Dark-red helleborine © Philip Precey
This hardy orchid prefers to take residence in open, rocky outcrops of limestone and can often be spotted precariously perching on scree slopes and cliff edges in the north and west of Britain and Ireland.
The tyne helleborine
Tucked away in north Wales, northern England and southern Scotland is the rare tyne helleborine. This well adapted orchid resides in very unusual locations around areas that have previously been highly contaminated with industrial waste like spoil heaps and soils contaminated with heavy metals. The tyne helleborine is a variety of the dune helleborine but it differs in the fact it is found at inland sites and has greener flowers. Northumberland Wildlife Trust's Williamston Reserve and Beltingham River Gravels are two very important havens for this species.
The bee orchid
Bee orchid at West Williamston, Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales © Lizzie Wilberforce
Mimicking the distinctive outline of a bee, the bee orchid is possibly the UK's most distinctively recognisable orchid. It is predominantly found on sunny, well-drained grasslands low in nutrients, although it is known to grow on heavier clay soils.
The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales' West Williamston nature reserve, London Wildlife Trust's Hutchinson's Bank and Berks, College Lake reserve part of the Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust's all harbour this species.
The monkey orchid
The monkey orchid (pictured top right) is a splendid find for any eager orchid hunter. It is found at only three sites across the UK, two of which allow visitors: Park Gate Down and Hartslock. Extra care needs to be taken at these reserves not to crush the hidden wonders.
The military orchid
Military orchid © Helen Walsh
The elusive military orchid is only found on chalky soils and in or near woodland. Populations of this beautiful flower have dwindled so low that it is now only found at three sites in the UK: two in the Chilterns including Homefield Woods Nature Reserve and one site in Suffolk.
Protecting orchids for the future
New Grove Meadows, Gwent Wildlife Trust © Chris Jones
These vulnerable flora treasures need to be protected for future generations to enjoy. The main threats to wild orchids in the UK are habitat change, habitat destruction and human predation. In Britain, orchids are protected by the Wildlife And Countryside Act, 1981. It is an offence to uproot them unless you have permission from the land owner.
The rarer orchids – including the monkey, military, lady's slipper, red helleborine and ghost, late and early-spider orchids – all fall under the heightened protection of Schedule 8 of this act which prohibits the uprooting, picking or destroying of the orchid. Many conservation charities are actively involved in projects to protect grasslands where orchids make their home. For example, both Lincolnshire and Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trusts are involved in the 'Life on the Verge' project, surveying road verges throughout the East Midlands.
Wild orchids can be spotted across the UK this season so take the chance to find the seemingly exotic snuck into the most unlikely of places.
Take a walk on the waterside.
Improve your wildlife photos.
Get the latest on the efforts to save our seas.
Take a wildlife walk in your town.
Take part in a wildlife survey.
Attract wildlife to your green space.