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Elder-flowered Orchid

Dactylorhiza sambucina

  • Family: Orchid Family – Orchidaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Root tubers deeply lobed.
  • Height: 20–30 cm (8–12 in.). Stem sturdy, hollow.
  • Flower: Perianth irregular (zygomorphic), purple (more common) or yellowish white, approx. 1.5–2 cm (0.6–0.8 in.) wide. Tepals 6, in 2 whorls, of which one elaborated into labellum. Labellum under perianth, spurred, usually with violet spots at base, red flowers with yellowish white spots, tip 3-lobed. Spur bluntly conical, thick, curving downwards, same length as ovary. Androecium and gynoecium fused into a column, stamens 1, stigmas 2. Inflorescence a dense, short, globose raceme. Flowers’ subtending bracts large, same length as flowers.
  • Leaves: Alternate at base of stem, stalkless. Basal leaves 3–4, also1–2 small upper leaves at top of stem. Blade with entire margin, parallel-veined, without spots, lower leaves obovate, upper linear–lanceolate, narrow.
  • Fruit: Capsule, seeds tiny, like dust.
  • Habitat: Dryish meadows, coppices, pastures, banks. Calciphile.
  • Flowering time: May–June.
  • Endangerment: Near threatened, protected in mainland Finland.

Elder-flowered orchid is one of the earliest-flowering orchids in the north. Its flowers adorn coppices on the Åland Islands from the end of May, when the queen bees wake up from their winter rest and establish a hive, flying tirelessly around to gather nutrition for the first generation of workers. From the bee’s point of view however it is a fruitless task to visit elder-flowered orchid because it has no nectar or pollen: the plant rather fools inexperienced bees into pollinating it without any reward. Insects learn to beware of cheaters, so evolution’s next step was to create two colours of elder-flowered orchid, red and yellow, which can appear in the same habitat. The red coloured variety is usually predominant in northern Finland, while in the south it is in the minority. The differently coloured varieties usually stay very separate, but sometimes plants that are different shades of orange can be found.

The hereditary mechanism of elder-flowered orchid’s flowers is not known, but their significance is clear: when the bees have twice as much to learn, they don’t learn so fast to avoid the species’ nectarless flowers. The bees do eventually catch on to the ruse, but by that time they have pollinated enough flowers. Pollination that is based on deceit is not however very efficient as often only a few flowers develop a seed capsule.

Elder-flowered orchid’s name refers to its similarity to black elderberry (Sambucus nigra), but this is just as illusory as the message the plant sends the bees: the elder-scented species is another yellow-flowered orchid, but real elder-flowered orchid’s flowers are almost odourless. This confusion came about because the species grow together on the mountain meadows of Europe, where elder-flowered orchid was described.

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

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