Sunday, March 10, 2013

Orchis purpurea or the lady orchid

Description and photos of the lady orchid (Orchis purpurea).

Marius van Heiningen

Personal introduction.
The usual way of most plant books to describe a species is by means of a picture of the flower and a description of the details, which is understandable because colour photos are expensive. On internet a lot of websites follow the same patron, which is less understandable because the capacity of blogs and webs is actually quite big (for instance, the capacity of a “blogspot-blog” is 5 Gb). When flower hunting in the field, an accurate description of the details is very welcome, because you can check them right at the spot, with the book in your hand. But when searching on the web for more information I would like to find detailed descriptions with lots of photos. For this reason I´ll try to write my posts showing the characteristics in various photos. I hope this way the information will be of use to the reader.

The lady orchid or Orchis purpurea is a conspicuous orchid, both due to the height of the flowering stalks (25 – 100 cm) and the dense inflorescence with lots of purple-white flowers. It even may be too conspicuous, because it makes them prone to flower picking. It is a perennial plant who´s leaves appear above ground in the winter, normally in January or February. These more or less lanceolate leaves, this is with a rounded base tapering towards the apex, are relatively big and parallel-nerved (like all orchids). In the Cantabrian Mountains flowering takes places during April and May. The flower has a spur without nectar, so it is a food-deceptive orchid, but they produce a sweet odour and are pollinated by bumblebees or butterflies.
In the southern Cantabrian Mountains this orchid is not very common, but I have been able to locate several groups of about 30 – 40 of adult orchids with inflorescences and much more scattered exemplars have been found alone or in small groups. Most grow in full sunlight, others grow between (evergreen) oaks or even in poplar plantations, but none has been found in heavily shaded forests.

Photo 1 shows the general robust aspect of Orchis purpurea, the lady orchid, with long and broad leaves and a thick spike with a dense inflorescence, which may have up to a hundred flowers or more. They grow on calcareous soil, often in full sun but also in partly shadowed habitats.


Photo 2 shows part of the dense inflorescence. The sepals and lateral petals form a hood or helmet with a dark red, purple or brownish appearance. The lip or labellum is clearly divided in 2 long side lobes and a wide middle lobe, which has the form of an inverted hart. The middle lobe is divided in two sub-lobes separated by a small “tooth”, which is best visible in the upper left flower.

Photo 3 shows the labellum of a lady orchid flower. The colour of this flower is more or less purple, somewhat white-purple in the centre and more dark purple along the sides. Very conspicuous are the clusters of dark purple “hairs”, distributed on all three lobes. The “tooth” of the middle lobe is bent backwards and therefore not very clear.

Photo 4 shows the upper part of an inflorescence. In these flowers the “tooth” of the middle lobe is good visible.

Photo 5 shows a side view of two flowers close together. We can observe various details: 1) The ovary is clearly twisted due to a mechanism very common in orchids and which is called resupination, which is the rotating of the flower by 180 degrees so that the upper petal becomes the lip. 2) At close inspection the hood is not even coloured, but with a white or light purple base with dark reddish-purple lines and spots. 3) At the back of the labellum (in the photo on the left side of the flower) there is a white or light purple downwards bent spur, which in the case of the lady orchid doesn´t offer any nectar (food deceptive orchid). 4) At the base of the ovary, where it is attached to the spike, there is a very small bract, light coloured with a small purple spot. The length of the bract is approximately one fifth of the ovary length. 5) The clusters of “hairs” on the lip are good visible.

Photo 6 shows even more clearly the same aspects mentioned at the anterior photo, except for the bract and a less clear resupination. The spur has in this case some purple lines. Another aspect is that the backside of the labellum is of a more dark purple than the upper side.

Photo 7 shows several lady orchids and stems of last year together. This habitat is a flat calcareous grassland.

Photo 8 shows a very robust exemplar with a thick stem and a lot of leaves.

Photo 9 shows an Orchis purpurea with 10 leaves, with the smallest leave at the bottom right side of the plant. According to literature 3 – 6 basal leaves is most common.

Photo 10 shows the lanceolate form of the leaves, with in the centre several sheathing basal leaves around the stem. The stem has no leaves. The leaves are unspotted with parallel leave nerves, which is a characteristic of all orchids.

Photo 11 shows two orchids very close together, which probably means an asexual reproduction (cloning). There is also a stem from last year.

Photo 12 shows some lady orchids in a habitat which consists of a field which was ploughed some years ago.  

Photo 13 shows a lady orchid in middle of a colony of green winged orchids (Anacamptis morio). This habitat consists of a dense and rather wet meadow, used to produce hay.

Photo 14 shows the rather dense inflorescence of this lady orchid.

Photo 15 shows that some Orchis purpurea have white lips.

Photo 16 shows some details of photo 15. On the edges of the labellum there is some purple.

Photo 17 shows a spike with faded flowers and ovaries which start to swell.

Photo 18 shows also a spike faded flowers.

Photo 19 shows that there is more fruit set near the top of the spike.

Photo 20 shows a swollen ovary.

Photo 21 shows a spike with very low fruit set (only 2 swollen ovaries), which is often the case in deceptive orchids.

Which orchid is this?

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