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Early Purple Orchid

Orchis mascula

  • Name also: Salep Orchid, Dead Mans Fingers, Male Orchis, Early-purple Orchid
  • Family: Orchid Family – Orchidaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Root tubers small, egg-shaped.
  • Height: 25–40 cm (10–16 in.). Upper stem reddish.
  • Flower: Perianth irregular (zygomorphic), dark red, occasionally pink or white, approx. 1.5–2 cm (0.6–0.8 in.) wide. Tepals 6, in 2 whorls, of which one elaborated into labellum, upper tepals spreading, not curving together. Labellum under perianth, spurred, lighter in middle, dark-dotted, 3-lobed–lobeless. Spur long, slightly ascending oblique. Androecium and gynoecium fused into a column, stamens 1, stigmas 2. Inflorescence a cylindrical, 10–20-flowered spike. Flowers’ subtending bracts membranous, purple.
  • Leaves: 3–4 stalkless leaves at base like rosette and alternate sheathing leaves on stem. Blade elliptic–lanceolate–linear, with entire margin, upper surface dark green–greyish green, without spots–spotted, spots often large. Emerging inflorescence protected by sheath-like upper leaves.
  • Fruit: Capsule, seeds tiny, like dust.
  • Habitat: Meadows, coppices, hedgerows, pastures. Calciphile.
  • Flowering time: (May–)June.
  • Endangerment: Near threatened, protected on the Åland Islands.

Genus Orchid’s scientific name comes from the Ancient Greek word orkhis, which means testicle. It is typical of the genus that its plants have two elliptic-round root tubers, which have inspired its name. In the days of the ‘doctrine of signs’ this led to a belief that this would have a favouable effect on mens’ health. They have been used – and are still used in some places – in southern Europe as the basis of a drink that is claimed to increase mens’ virility.

Although early purple orchid has a nectar spur, the flower contains no nectar or any other reward for pollinators. Like its relatives, it uses deception to achieve pollination. Before the insects feeding behavior has been established they visit suitable nutrition plants looking for the most impressive flowers – e.g. orchids. Early purple orchid blooms early in spring or summer, at which time inexperienced, even newborn bees are easy to cheat. Pollination biology however reveals that early purple orchid is persistent here in Finland at the edge of its habitat: its outward appearance and fragrance imitates the style of a nectiferous, zygomorphic Mint family (Lamiaceae) plant, but in Finland there are no suitable plants to imitate that flower so early in the spring. Of Finland’s scant selection of insects nothing is a perfect fit to pollinate orchids: the head is either too big or too small, and none are just right. Early purple orchid is mainly pollinated by bumblebee and cuckoo bumblebee queens, male long-horned bees and burrowing bees. Early purple orchid is sensitive to frost and only grows in Finland on the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea; elsewhere in Finland another related orchid, military orchid (O. militaris), grows casually. Its upward-arching tepals above the labellum are pink on the outside and dark red on the inside.

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

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