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Orchid for April: Early purple (Orchis mascula)

Posted: Wednesday 19th April 2017 by Michael-Waller

Early purple orchid (credit Michael Waller)Early purple orchid (credit Michael Waller)

In the first in a series of blogs about London's orchids, London Wildlife Trust's Conservation Ecologist Michael Waller introduces us to the 'early purple'...

As the name suggests, the early purple orchid is one of the first orchid species to flower, often scattered among carpets of bluebells in our woodlands and copses. The bright pink or magenta flowers stand out like beacons against the fresh green vegetation with unique spotted leaves.

Early purple orchid (credit Michael Waller)

Fortunately, the early purple orchid is one of our most common species and has a long history in the British Isles. It was first recorded by William Turner nearly half a millennia ago in 1562 – a time when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne and William Shakespeare had yet to be born.

The attraction of this plant didn't pass the Victorians by. For a time, the early purple orchid was regarded as a powerful aphrodisiac on account of its testicle-shaped root tubers. Science has since proved this association to be entirely fanciful and early purple orchids are best left in the ground where they can continue to grace our countryside.

The species was probably much more widespread at that time, likely flourishing on the open commons and hay-meadows that covered much of Britain where the woodlands had been cleared. Like many of our more specialised plants, the species was totally wiped out in some areas as agricultural intensification began to take hold in the 19th century.

At London Wildlife Trust we've been working hard to manage our woodlands to create a mixture of open glades and grasslands to create suitable conditions for the early purple orchid as well as many other scarce and endangered species.

Get out in April or May to our Hutchinson's Bank, Chapel Bank and Threecorner Grove nature reserve in south London to see early purple orchids at their best, or you could also visit Cuckoo Wood in High Elms Country Park, near Orpington, and Selsdon Wood in Croydon. (Thanks to Viridor for funding our conservation work at Hutchinson’s Bank.)

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