© Per-Olof Wickman

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Early Marsh Orchid

Dactylorhiza incarnata

  • Name also: Northern Marsh Orchid, Spotted Orchid, Early Marsh-orchid
  • Family: Orchid Family – Orchidaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb.
  • Height: 15–30 cm (6–12 in.). Stem thick, hollow, sometimes upper part purple.
  • Flower: Perianth irregular (zygomorphic), pink–dark purple, dark-patterned, approx. 1.5 cm (0.6 in.) wide. Tepals 6, in 2 whorls, of which one elaborated into labellum. Labellum under perianth, spurred, narrow, almost lobeless–shallowly 3-lobed, with recurved margins. Spur 3/4 length of ovary. Androecium and gynoecium fused into a column, stamens 1, stigmas 2. Inflorescence a dense, abundantly-flowered spike. Flowers’ subtending bracts dark reddish brown, almost smooth-edged, same length as flowers or longer.
  • Leaves: Alternate, stalkless, 4–6, gradually becoming smaller towards crown. Blade lanceolate–narrowly ovate–linear, bow-tipped, with entire margin, parallel-veined, dark or grayish green, without spots–both sides densely dark-spotted, even uniformly dark.
  • Fruit: Capsule, seeds tiny, like dust.
  • Habitat: Rich bogs, moist meadows, beaches.
  • Flowering time: June–July.
  • Endangerment: Early marsh orchid (ssp. incarnata) is near threatened and protected south of the province of Oulu. Ssp. cruenta is vulnerable and protected in all of Finland.

Early marsh orchid is usually quite easy to recognise, but within the group there is a lot of diversity. The easiest form to classify is the subspecies cruenta, which has traveled a winding road within botany: once it was regarded as an independent species, then as a variation of early marsh orchid. Nowadays both ssp. incarnata and ssp. cruenta are viewed as subspecies, but this is still open to dispute. Early marsh orchid is a young, developing species with different forms that are actively diverging from one another: later they either divide completely or the differences even themselves out. In the meantime different colour schemes are not genetically different, and there is no barrier to them reproducing. People are however producing effects that affect its evolution as its habitat is decreasing: rare populations that are growing here and there can end up so far away from each other that they cannot propagate themselves together, and so they must set out on their own.

The most important current use for the colour schemes is probably by pollinating insects. Different colours are perceived differently and pollinators usually visit specific flowers based on their colour: different-coloured varieties are probably pollinated by different insects. Early marsh orchid exploits the lack of flowers in damp habitats in the middle of summer: when there is not much on offer, bumblebees will check out early marsh orchid’s beautiful (though nectarless) flowers despite numerous previous disappointments. The flower is also visited by bees, flies and beetles.

Other species from the same genus
Other species from the same family

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