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Broad-leaved Helleborine

Epipactis helleborine

  • Name also: Broad Helleborine, Broadleaf Helleborine
  • Family: Orchid Family – Orchidaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Rootstock vertical, short, thick, many-rooted.
  • Height: 30–80 cm (12–32 in.). Upper stem white-haired, light green.
  • Flower: Perianth irregular (zygomorphic), outer surface green, inner surface green–reddish brown–violet, 15–20 mm (0.6–0.8 in.) wide. Tepals 6, in 2 whorls, of which one elaborated into labellum. Labellum under perianth, spurless, constricted in middle, base cup-shaped, dark brownish violet, tip greenish white or pink. Androecium and gynoecium fused into a column, stamens 1, stigmas 2. Inflorescence a quite lax, up to 50-flowered, one-sided raceme. Lower flowers’ subtending bracts long, like stem leaves.
  • Leaves: Alternate, stalkless, amplexicaul, 5–10, becoming smaller towards crown. Blade on lower leaves elliptic, upper leaves lanceolate–ovate, tapered, with entire margin, parallel-veined.
  • Fruit: Nodding capsule. Seeds tiny, like dust.
  • Habitat: Light-filled broad-leaved forests, rich ridge and rocky forests, rich swamps, lime quarries. Calciphile.
  • Flowering time: July–August.
  • Endangerment: Protected in all of Finland.

Broad-leaved helleborine is the largest of the orchids that grow in Finland, reaching up 1 metre (40 in.) high. You might think that such a large and special plant would be unmissable, but in fact it often merges into the green background. Even the flower’s colours are subdued: greenish and reddish brown. The base of the lip is a dark meaty red and attracts especially bees, which feed their young with other insects. Bees also nourish their offspring on ripe fruits and thus transport the micro-organisms in the flower, such as the Cladosporium mushroom. If the fungus enters the nectiferous lip then fermentation begins, creating alcohol and perhaps other intoxicating substances too. The end result is that the bees behave similarly to other creatures at the pub door: an unsteady gait, lurching movements, and when it wears off, straight back for more! Apparently the intoxicated bees are unable to get the orchid’s pollinia out of their head, and this addictive plant ensures efficient pollination. Some Finnish broad-leaved helleborines can also be self-pollinating. A single plant can produce up to a million seeds – as is typical of orchids they are as small as specks of dust, completely without any spare nutrition, and in need of a fungal companion to be able to grow.

Broad-leaved helleborine is completely dependent on a fungal root. A dramatic illustration of this is the stand close to the Lappeenranta lime factory, where a couple of hundred non-chlorophyllous white albino broad-leaved helleborines grow with their faithful companions. This might be the only place in the world where these perceptively nicknamed ghost orchids can be seen so regularly and abundantly – although actually the numbers vary from one year to the next: in a dry summer the fungal filaments are quite passive and as a non-chlorophyllous plant it can’t compensate with assimilation, so its strength peters out before its flowering time.

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

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