Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid)

Plant of the week
Picture of Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid)
Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid)

For many, orchids evoke connotations of the exotic and rare. Some species, however, are actually common and widespread. O. mascula is once such an orchid, being found most often in woodland and shady places, but also occasionally in open grassland and hedgebanks. It is the first of the orchids to come into flower, the earliest Sussex records generally being around mid-April. It is another of Francis Rose’s ancient woodland indicators (AWI) for the south-east.

Distribution map of Orchis mascula in Sussex
Distribution map of Orchis mascula in Sussex

Native. Sx: common. Woodland; open downland; hedge bottoms and road verges. Widespread except on the most acid soils and in areas where there are few old woods, and an ancient woodland indicator. It is very common in some woods on the Clays. Plants with peloric or other odd flower forms occur occasionally. A notable example occurred near Hollingbury Castle in 2006 where the flower spikes appeared yellow due to multiple sets of pollinia and the reduction of the perianth segments to 1mm (TQ30I P. Thompson). This peculiar form did not persist.

Source: Orchis mascula (L.) L. Early-purple Orchid, The Flora of Sussex (2018)

Its rosette of leaves appear from early January and have distinctive roundish dark splodges (as compared with the splodges on Dactylorhiza fuchsii (Common Spotted-orchid), which has dark splodges elongated across the leaf).

Picture of Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid)
Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid)

The flower spikes can be impressive, rising up to 60cm begetting perhaps one of the more than 90 common names for the plant – ‘long-purples’. Shakespeare refers to them in Hamlet, where in reference to the deranged Ophelia the Queeen says:

There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long-purples:
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, (see below)
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.

Rams-horns is one of the names peculiar to Sussex. It has one of the longer entries in Geoffrey Grigson’s wonderful The Englishman’s Flora (1958) wherein the common names are collected and the folklore elucidated. Many of the common names are, unsurprisingly, associated with fertility. The genus name Orchis of course means ‘testicle’ and was used as far back as Dioscorides.

The reason for this won’t be obvious to the modern connoisseur of the vegetable kingdom as we are brought up not to cut, pick or uproot plants (the latter is in fact illegal without the landowner’s permission (Wildlife and Countryside Act – 1981) and for some species (Schedule 8 of the former Act) even then). However, beneath the ground each plant has two testicle-sized tubers, one firm and turgid, filling with food for the following season, and one flaccid and diminishing, providing the energy for the current season’s growth.

The Doctrine of Signatures resulted in a plethora of medicinal and magical uses for such plants. Dioscorides records Thessalian women using the tubers by preparing them in goat’s milk: the firm one to elicit desire and fertility; the slack one to quash it. The fact that O. mascula grows mostly in woodland prompted the belief that it was used by the satyrs to fuel their wayward ways, with a preparation of the plants with wine being known as the ‘water of Satyrion’.

Picture of Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid)
Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid)

Orchids, besides their aesthetic merits, are fascinating for variety of reasons: their variety within the species; their tendency to hybridise; their reproductive strategies; their unpredictable behaviour. The flowers in the mature spike of O. mascula are in fact upside down. You can see in the photograph below a newly opened flower in the process or rotating 180 degrees about its ovary which connects it to the spike.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in Sussex orchids must obtain a copy of David Lang’s authoritative and wonderfully written Wild Orchids of Sussex (2001). David is a renowned expert on orchids and we are lucky to have him in Sussex as a long-standing member of our society.