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Dark Red Helleborine

Epipactis atrorubens

  • Name also: Royal Helleborine, Dark-red Helleborine
  • Family: Orchid Family – Orchidaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Rootstock short, vertical.
  • Height: 20–50 cm (8–20 in.). Stalk often violet, upper part hairy.
  • Flower: Irregular (zygomorphic), dark reddish brown–dark purple, occasionally greenish, approx. 10 mm (0.4 in.) wide. Tepals 6, in 2 whorls, of which one elaborated into labellum. Labellum under perianth, spurless, constricted in middle, basal part cup-like. Androecium and gynoecium fused into a column, stamens 1, stigmas 2. Inflorescence quite lax, a 6–30-flowered one-sided raceme. Flower vanilla-scented. Subtending bracts generally shorter than flowers.
  • Leaves: Alternate, almost in 2 rows, stalkless, 5–11, becoming smaller towards the top. Blade elliptic–narrowly elliptic, parallel-veined, with entire margins, blue-greenish.
  • Fruit: Nodding capsule, seeds minute, dust-like.
  • Habitat: Rocky and gravelly areas, sandy shorelines, roadsides and limestone quarries. Calcicole.
  • Flowering time: July–August.
  • Endangerment: Vulnerable, protected in all of Finland.

Rocky and gravelly areas do not perhaps immediately spring to mind as promising places to look for rare orchids. Dark red helleborine is very rare, and is most typically found in sunny, dry, open places. The rock must be calciferous because dark red helleborine demands lime (is calcicolous). In Finland it was also expected to appear in limestone quarry walls, but with great delight it was discovered to be sporadically colonizing new habitats on roadsides, where lime had become mixed with construction sand. It is worth looking for new stands because the species is one of Finland’s most beautiful orchids; it is tall and beautiful in flower. The dark colour of the plant seems to protect it from being damaged by receiving too much UV radiation from the sun in its favoured open habitats.

The dark red colour of the flowers and pleasant vanilla fragrance attracts potential pollinators, especially small social wasps that live alone, as they seem to specialize in this species. As with other orchids, the seeds are impossibly small, so the wind can easily carry them for miles – even many times around the world if they are in stormy air currents. When an orchid begins to grow it is completely dependent on its fungal partner, and it spends the first years of its life underground as primary rootstock. It takes a full decade to develop from this stage into a fully grown flowering plant.

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

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