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Military Orchid

Orchis militaris

  • Family: Orchid Family – Orchidaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Tubers small, egg-shaped.
  • Height: 25–30 cm (10–12 in.). Stem usually green, sometimes becoming red towards the top.
  • Flower: Perianth irregular (zygomorphic), outer surface pink, inner surface dark red, approx. 1.5 cm (0.6 in.) wide. Tepals 6 in 2 whorls, of which one elaborated into labellum. Upper tepals helmet-shaped. Labellum under perianth, spurred, lighter in the middle with purple dots 10–14 mm (0.4–0.55 in.) long, quite narrow, 3-lobed, lobed in such a way that it vaguely resembles a human figure. Spur short, round. Androecium and gynoecium fused into a column, stamens 1, stigmas 2. Inflorescence a quite dense, oval–conical spike. Flowers coumarin-scented. Subtending bracts of the inflorescence are membranous.
  • Leaves: 2–5 stalkless leaves at base like rosette and alternate sheathing leaves on stem, Blade with entire margins, parallel-veined, thick, shiny, light green, undotted. Sheath-like upper leaves protect the developing inflorescence.
  • Fruit: Capsule. Seeds minute, dust-like.
  • Habitat: Roadsides, forest margins and glades, lime quarries, sometimes waste ground.
  • Flowering time: June.
  • Endangerment: Endangered, protected in all of Finland, except the Åland Islands.

Military orchid’s particularly war-like scientific name is derived from the shape of its flowers, which the name-giver thought resembled helmeted soldiers: five sweeping tepals above the column form a broad helmet, the column itself is the face and the lobed labellum forms the limbs and torso of a human body. When military orchid is in flower it is one of the most handsome species in the family, and it often draws attention by growing in very visible places. The discovery of the first military orchid in Finland in 1983 was quite a scientific sensation. A specimen was however later discovered in the natural history museum: it had been collected from Ruotsinpyhtää on the south-east coast in 1867 but mistakenly identified as early purple orchid (O. mascula). Elias Lönnrot, the compiler of the Finnish national epic Kalevala, mentioned in 1860 that it grew on the Åland Isles, but experts later cast such doubt on this information that any mention of the species was removed from later literature.

Orchids are highly mobile plants which can appear in unexpected new places. They produce an astronomical amount of miniscule seeds, which can be carried by the wind for hundreds and thousands of miles. New military orchid discoveries have since popped up here and there, always in places where people have made their mark on calciferous soil, such as factory areas, roadsides and army training grounds. Most of them have been casual stands composed of only one or a few plants that probably don’t yet suffice to establish the species in Finland. Finland does not have many open calciferous places that suit the military orchid, but the species could perhaps make itself at home near lime quarries and start to form the first genuine Finnish military orchid population.

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

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