John and Gerry's    Orchids of Britain and Europe
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Orchis mascula


This is one of western Europe's commonest Orchis and can be found in a variety of habitats over a wide range that takes it as far west as the Canary Islands and from North Africa in the south right up to the Arctic Circle.  O. mascula reaches Italy and Greece in the east but beyond this becomes increasingly localized and replaced by both O.pinetorum and O. ovalis.


It was first described from Sweden in 1755 and its name "mascula" refers to the "masculine" appearance of the underground tubers. This is a familiar orchid in Britain, where its common name is the Early Purple Orchid, this being an appropriate if somewhat obvious name for the earliest flowering of the UK's native  species.

The appearance of the orchid is quite variable with much depending upon which type of habitat it is found growing in. On calcarious soils it tends to be a smaller plant with a dense inflorescence and large individual flowers. On clay and particularly in woodland, it can become a huge plant of to 60cms with a loose flower head of up to 50 flowers. Although O. mascula usually bears heavily dark spotted leaves, this is by no means a consistent feature and it would seem that this marking becomes less common the further south one travels. Illustration 6 is an example from Dorset (UK) whereas the unspotted examples in 3 and 9 come from southern France.  It can grow at heights of up to 3000m in the southern parts of its range.

O. mascula is not easily confused with other Orchis,  except possibly in the east of its range where it comes into contact with O. pinetorum and O. ovalis where there is undoubtedly some intergradation. The photos are from southern France and southern England, dating from late April.