Early Purple Orchid

Early purple orchid (3)The Early Purple Orchid, as its name suggests, is one of the first wild orchids to bloom each year.

Spikes of vivid magenta flowers rise from rosettes of shiny green leaves that may be speckled with purplish blotches.  The flower spikes can grow as tall as 15 inches, and the individual flowers sometimes have a paler ‘throat’ with deep mauve spots.   Each spike has between six and 20 flowers, borne on a fleshy stem which is green at the base and blends into deep red further up.

Early purple orchid (2)The website www.woodlands.co.uk states that “…flowers of orchids are very variable in shape and form but the flower is always two-lipped.”

About the Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula), it says:

“…there are three sepals.  Petals and one sepal form the ‘hood’ or helmet of the flower, and the two other sepals are erect and back against each other.”

Unless you’re a botanist, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish sepals from petals when they appear very similar, but on inspecting the Early Purple Orchid you can see that at the back of each single flower is a long, upward-curving spur or hood.  The tricky job of identifying orchids can revolve around the shape, colour and size of this spur.

The Early Purple Orchid is a master of deception, because its spur doesn’t contain any nectar – although that is the impression it wishes to give to eager pollinating insects such as bees and wasps.

These beautiful plants tend to prefer non-acidic conditions, and are often found in hedgerows, roadside verges, woods and open meadows that have been left undisturbed.   While one source claims that they have a scent similar to lilies-of-the-valley, another compares the odour to that of a tom cat.   Proof that all perfume is subjective!

According to Plantlife, this is the ‘long purple’ flower which Shakespeare describes in Ophelia’s garland:

“…Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.”

Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 7

The liberal shepherds were no doubt thinking of the drink or potion made from the orchid flowers, which had a reputation for enhancing a man’s virility.

Early Purple Orchids are in flower from April to June, and we saw plenty in the hedgerows and verges of Lismore in Argyll.   Keep an eye open for them, because they are truly beautiful!

Early purple orchid (1)


Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf

More wild orchids…

Bee OrchidTake a look at the Heath Spotted Orchid, or the strange-looking Bee Orchid!


  1. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them, I love the colour in your photos.

    • I know, the colour is just so intense! I hope you manage to see some. I think they have all flowered and gone now in southern England but they’re at their best in Scotland just now. So many flowers are coming into season, it’s hard to know what to write about first! 🙂

  2. Our Early Purple’s were out last month, and at the moment we have Green-winged and Common Spotted out, beautiful plants! I’m going on a plant tour holiday (5 days of walking in the North Yorks Moors 🙂 ) in a few weeks, and I will hopefully get to see my first Lady’s-slipper orchid.

    • They sound lovely!! I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Green-winged. Wow, a plant-spotting tour – that sounds exciting! I’m guessing you might be heading for Ingleborough at some stage? There are some Alpine plants that we really want to see, on Ben Lawers in Perthshire – on the high slopes of the mountain! Gentiana nivalis is among them, flowering in July.

  3. No didn’t see any of these lovely plants, I think we must have been just that too early for the Islands, what a shame they are so pretty….I wonder what else we missed 🙂

  4. I saw my first of the season yesterday in Fern Dale and Lathkill Dale in the Peak District…there are better locations to see them though and I hope to be visiting them soon. I did photos though.

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