Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Early purple and Green-winged Orchids: Not a hybrid in sight (Unsurprisingly)

Both Early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) and Green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) which are now in flower, are widespread and easy to find.  In the right spot there can be hundreds, even thousands.of plants.   Superficially they look rather similar, except that Early purples usually have spotted leaves, whereas Green-winged has unspotted leaves has but characteristic green veins on the two side sepals which form a hood.

They used to both be classified in the Orchis genus, but Green winged was split away, based on molecular evidence, and placed in the Anacamptis genus.   They both show significant, often attractive, colour variations from purple through to pink and white, but they do not seem to hybridise much with any other species.  There is though a hybrid between the two, Anacamptorchis morioides, which is an easily remembered name.   Unfortunately there are no records for this hybrid since the mid - 1970s on the BSBI database and only a handful before that, so what a challenge to find it and since there is less chance statistically of success than seeing the Ghost Orchid, Britain's rarest orchid (that at least appeared in 2009).

I started out by looking on the BSBI database for monads (1 km squares) where both orchids occurred in Oxfordshire and its surrounding counties, then looked at the individual records to see if they were close enough to be sympatric (ie grow close together).   I came up with 18 possible locations with the hotspot around Stroud in Gloucestershire (curiously also a hotspot for the Butterfly orchid hybrid).

Yesterday therefore I set off to that hotspot to share my day with golfers, dogwalkers (lots of them and the mess they leave - one woman had 9 dogs), horse riders and the odd off road cyclist, to look for the impossible, concentrating on orchids with spotted leaves and veined sepals.   Disappointingly the 1970s record is still the latest.

I started at Minchinhampton Common where both orchids grow quite close together, but only the Early purples were in flower. 


 I did find one orchid which I wondered about - unpotted leaves,spur a little less than 10mm and sepals gathered into a hood.  But there was no veining, so I concluded it was simply natural variation of a regular Early purple. 


Then to Rodborough Common, a few miles north.   Here I could only find Early purples, though mixed up nicely with cowslips.

Though to the west, Selsey Common, proved more interesting.   Green-winged were more advanced and in places the two species grew very close together, the nearest being 20 cm apart. 

 But the numbers of both were small and there were no individuals with the slightest hint of hybrdisation.

 I spent quite a time watching a tachinid fly (I think, based on the wing pattern) thoroughly exploring a Green-winged orchid, waiting to see if it might, just might, detach a pollinia.  Sadly just as the moment approached, so did an uncontrolled, yappy dog which blundered into the orchid and the fly.   Harry was the dog's name I think, and imbecile that of the dog owner.


  1. Hard luck! Well worth a try, though. As I am sure you will recall the leaves of EPO's on Skye (almost) never have spots.

  2. Indeed. Many of the plants in Gloucs. were heavily spotted, and I do recall that Skye plants did not. This is the reverse of the situation with some of the Dactyls where anthocyanin levels increase as one moves north eg. D.ebudensis (- its former name).

  3. I regularly look for the hybrid at Martins' Meadows, Suffolk and have never seen one in my 30 or so years as a warden. I note that Martin Sandford (A Flora of Suffolk) mentions one record for Suffolk from 1926 by the late Francis Simple but as Martin says "this record should be treated with caution as FWS was only 14 at the time". I have queried with Martin whether these "hybrids" were just variants of the parent species but he thinks that hybrids do in fact occur - especially on the Continent.

  4. I pretty much agree with you, and am doubtful whether a hybrid exists in the UK at least. I visited Martins' Meadow last year and saw nothing that looked intermediate. What was interesting at Selsey was just how close plants of the two species are, but in small numbers and if hybridisation is rare and the probability is low then you would need large numbers of each sitting side by side to throw off the occasional hybrid. I don't know of any location where this is the case. From memory at Martins' Meadow the two species were not intermingled, with many more Green-winged than Early purple.