Orchids are one of the largest families of flowering plants, with an estimated 27,000 species worldwide. Around 70 per cent of orchids are epiphytic, meaning they derive their moisture and nutrients from the air and usually grow high in the canopy of tropical forests. But temperate species, such as those in Britain, are terrestrial in their growth habits, meaning they grow in the ground.
Orchids are perennial and they grow in a wide range of UK habitats from boggy peatland to coastal dunes and dry grassland. Some native species like the red helleborine and fen orchid are extremely rare, and habitat loss and climate breakdown are hastening the decline of many other species too.
Over the years, orchid theft from the wild has been a serious issue, and continues to have an impact on UK orchid populations. As with other wild plants, it's illegal to uproot orchids without the landowner’s permission under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Several of the rarest orchid species have further protection under this act.
A few orchid species, such as summer lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes aestivalis), have already become extinct, while others, such as the ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum), are on the brink of disappearing.
Unlike the ghost orchid, the common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsia) is – as its name suggests - still common throughout the UK. A fully hardy perennial, this orchid thrives in many different habitats, including wetland such as marshes, fens and damp meadows, and drier areas like dunes, chalk grassland and woodland edges. It is the most widespread British orchid and produces spikes of purple flowers in late spring and summer.
How to grow common spotted orchids
There are several orchid species, including the common spotted orchid, that can be grown successfully in gardens. There are orchids for sunny spots and for shade, for borders, lawns and even containers. They can be bought as plants or grown from seed. Common spotted orchids – one of two spotted orchid species in the UK – are tolerant of a range of soil conditions, making them an ideal orchid for growing in domestic gardens. They are also prolific seed producers. In suitable garden habitats, plants should naturalise over time and beautiful orchid colonies can develop.
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How to identify the common spotted orchid
Dactylorhiza orchids (a genus which comprises marsh orchids and spotted orchids) are the most difficult to identify because of the similarity of species, variability within species, and their tendency to hybridise.
The common spotted orchid produces a rosette of green leaves with purple-brown spots in April. These markings give the plant its common name. It comes into flower between May and August, with many flowers at their best during early summer. The conical flower spikes reach up to 60cm in height and become more cylindrical in shape as they develop. Individual flowers range from whitish to pink with darker pink or purple lines and loops on the three-lobed lip.
It can be difficult to distinguish between the heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) and the common spotted orchid, partly because of their variation in height and flower patterning, and also as a result of inter-breeding between the two species. Before the flowers emerge, heath and common spotted orchids are almost impossible to tell apart. Once in bloom, common spotted-orchid flower spikes often have a taller, less rounded form than heath spotted orchids. The lips of the flowers are more clearly defined than those of heath spotted orchids, and the markings are generally darker and bolder.
Habitats can be helpful in identifying orchid species. Dactylorhiza fuchsia usually grows in calcareous, neutral or mildly acidic soils, such as chalk grassland and roadside verges, whereas Dactylorhiza maculata favours damp acidic peat soils on heathland, bogs and wet meadows. Heath spotted orchid is more common in northern and western areas of the UK, especially in Scotland.
Where to grow common spotted orchid
Common spotted orchids can be grown in many gardens, due to their ability to thrive in meadows, rockeries and containers. Perennial wildflower meadows are ideal habitats for these versatile orchids. Either plant or sow orchids into established meadows or into wildflower areas in your lawn.
Dactylorhiza fuchsii is suitable for growing in rock gardens, preferably in partial shade or in full sun in alkaline, moist, but well-drained soil. Common Spotted Orchids can also be grown in containers. This is particularly useful if you have acidic garden soil. Fill a pot with peat-free soil-less multi-purpose compost with a high humus content and add perlite or grit to improve drainage.
How to plant common spotted orchid
Potted and bare-rooted common spotted orchids should be planted out in early autumn or early spring.
- Make a planting hole with a spade or a bulb planter
- For bare-rooted plants, break up the soil to a fine tilth
- Place the plant in the hole making sure that buds of dormant plants are not below ground level and that roots aren't damaged
- Backfill the hole with fine soil
- Water well
How to care for common spotted orchid
Once established, common spotted orchids require little attention. They are a ‘winter dormant’ species, which means they die back in early autumn and a new rosette of leaves grows in spring. Meadows containing common spotted orchids can be managed as normal, providing they are cut after the seeds have fallen (usually by September), to enable new orchids to grow.
Common spotted orchids grown in containers should be situated in semi-shade to avoid the compost drying out too quickly in hot weather. They need watering through the growing season but should never sit in water, and need to be brought under cover in the winter to prevent the roots from freezing.
Plants in the ground should be fully hardy through even the coldest periods. Common spotted orchids in pots can be deadheaded to encourage plants to flower more regularly and to produce bigger flower spikes the following year, providing you don’t want your plants to set seed.
How to propagate common spotted orchid
Clumps of common spotted orchids can be propagated by division in spring. Spilt the clump as carefully as possible once new shoots begin to appear and replant immediately.
Dachtylorhiza fuchsii can also be grown from seed, but this is a complex, slow and temperamental process. If you buy orchid seeds, the easiest way to sow is to mix the tiny seeds with damp sand, sprinkle thinly into an established meadow area after the late summer cut, water in and wait. In a few years, if the conditions are right and the soil contains compatible symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi, you may start to see orchids appearing among the other wild flowers.
Pests and diseases
Common spotted orchids have few problems with pests and diseases, especially when grown in meadows with healthy ecosystems.
- Ensure that you buy plants and seed from a reputable nursery or a specialist plant fair to avoid orchids being dug up from the wild
- If you buy plants, check that the orchids are healthy before planting out
- Make sure you have suitable growing conditions before you buy