Get ready for an orchid summer

Early purple orchids by Jim Higham

Some are bright and showy while others are subtle and delicate, but one thing’s for sure, all of the orchids found in our region are very special.

Where can you see wild orchids in the UK?

Wild orchids grow in a range of habitats including wildflower meadows, woodland, road verges, sand dunes and disused quarries. Each species of orchid has its own habitat preference and they flower at slightly different times of the year. In general, June is peak orchid season in Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, with the majority of our common species in flower.

Are wild orchids protected in the UK?

Like all wildflowers, orchids are protected under Section 13 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This means that it’s illegal to intentionally uproot any wild plant without authorisation. Some very rare orchids, like the lady’s slipper, have additional protections which safeguard not only the plants themselves but also their seeds and spores from intentional picking, uprooting or destruction.

Wildflowers are best enjoyed in their natural setting, where others can also appreciate their beauty and they can thrive alongside the wildlife that depends on them.

How do I identify a wild orchid?

Our regions orchids come in a dizzying array of shapes, sizes, colours and patterns that can help you identify them when you’re out and about. Here are seven species you can spot at our nature reserves.

A common spotted orchid nestled in the grass

Common spotted orchid by Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Common spotted orchid

Can vary from deep to light pink and sometimes even white. Look out for the distinctive darker pink or purple spots and stripes on its three-lobed bottom petals, or ‘lips’. The flowers of common spotted orchids are densely packed around each stem, and you can find them growing everywhere from damp grassland and scrubland to railway embankments and old quarries. Day-flying moths love their sweet scent.

Where to see them: Cross Hill Quarry, Longworth Clough, Mere Sands Wood, Brockholes, Heysham Nature Reserve.

Close-up of the flowers of the early purple orchid

Early purple orchid by Jim Higham

Early purple orchid

This is one of the first orchids to bloom, often arriving with bluebells. Keep an eye out for magenta flowers which are densely packed into a cone-shaped cluster on tallish spikes. The leaves of the early purple orchid are dark green and glossy with dark spots. This species grows largely along hedgerows and banks, and in ancient woodland and open grassland. It starts life smelling sweetly then starts to reek once fertilised!

Where to see them: Warton Crag.

A bee orchid at Wigan Flashes nature reserve

Dawn Monrose

Bee orchid

There’s no mistaking this beautiful orchid. Its velvety lip actually evolved to look like a female bee so the plant could lure in male bees to pollinate it. Alas, the right bee species doesn’t live in the UK, so our bee orchids self-pollinate. This is one of our smaller wild orchid species and can be found on dry, chalk and limestone grassland. Bee orchids have even been known to pop up on people’s lawns! They grow slowly and may only flower once in their lifetime, so take care not to damage or pick them.

Where to see them: Salthill Quarry, Heysham Nature Reserve, Brockholes, Haskayne Cutting.

Close-up of the white, pink and yellow flowers of the marsh helleborine orchid

Marsh helleborine by Philip Precey

Marsh helleborine

Marsh helleborine is one of our more unusual looking orchids, but standing out is by no means a bad thing. Its white flowers have delicate frilly edges, a yellow spot and a reddy-purple centre, while its stunning sepals are a rich magenta colour. Up to 20 flowers sit on each stem, which grow in fens, wet grassland and dune slacks between July and August. Marsh helleborine is quite scarce and sadly declining due to habitat loss.

Where to see them: Mere Sands Wood, Wigan Flashes.

Southern marsh orchids amongst the grass in a wildflower meadow

Southern marsh orchids by Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Southern marsh orchid

The southern marsh orchid is another common species and can be just as tricky to identify as the early marsh orchid. It varies in colour from pale to dark pink and can hybridise with the common spotted orchid. If that wasn’t enough, the markings on the lip of each flower can vary too! Southern marsh orchids grow along riversides and in wet meadows, often in large numbers, but can also be found on old industrial sites and in dune slacks.

Where to see them: Mere Sands Wood, Middleton Nature Reserve, Moston Fairway.

A northern marsh orchid growing amongst green vegetation

Northern marsh orchid by Amy Lewis

Northern marsh orchid

The lips of these vivid purple flowers are peppered with dark spots and lines. These patterns don’t usually form loops like on some similar orchids, so can be a defining feature. Northern marsh orchids mostly grow in coastal spots but can also be found in other wet areas with suitable soil, like our Cross Hill Quarry nature reserve in Clitheroe.

Where to see them: Middleton Nature Reserve, Cross Hill Quarry.

Close-up of the bright pink flowers of the early marsh orchid

Early marsh orchid by Amy Lewis

Early marsh orchid

This tricky orchid can range in colour from white through to red and can even hybridise with the closely related common spotted orchid. Its most common form has pale pink flowers, so look out for spikes of up to 50 of these pretty flowers with loop-shaped markings on each lip. The early marsh orchid is the most widespread of our marsh orchids and can be found brightening up grassland, wetlands, ditches and dune slacks.

Where to see them: Mere Sands Wood, Middleton Nature Reserve.

Other local orchid hotspots

Our nature reserves aren’t the only places to see wild orchids. Some of the best spots can be found along the coast, where we work in partnership with local councils to improve the area for the special wildlife that lives there.

The Fylde sand dunes nurture marsh helleborine, dune helleborine, southern marsh orchids and the gorgeous pyramidal orchid, with its distinctive triangular-shaped cluster of fuchsia flowers.

On the Sefton Coast, including the Ainsdale sand dunes, you can find bee orchids, pyramidal orchids, early marsh orchids, dune helleborine and marsh helleborine, as well as scarcer green-flowered helleborine and green-winged orchids.

For our orchid summers

Wild orchids brighten up the landscape with their beauty, fill us with joy and support countless insects. It would be a travesty to lose them. We’re boosting orchid numbers on our reserves and advising on how to manage land for wildflowers across our region.

Help us continue this vital work

Pyramidal orchids by Paul Lane