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MARSH ORCHIDS IN CUMBRIA

The two members of this group, the Early Marsh Orchid (and variants) and the Northern Marsh Orcid, occur widely in Cumbria throughout June; a third species, the Southern Marsh Orchid is a recent arrival. However their propensity to hybridise with each other and with orchids from other groups found in the same habitats make identification very difficult. The notes below may help.

 

EARLY MARSH ORCHID (incarnata)

  • Flower spike : pale flesh pink (hence incarnata)
  • Lip: weakly three-lobed, with sides folded down (reflexed) very markedly,and patterned with dots and dashes within a lined border.
  • Lateral sepals:held almost vertically,oval in shape (sometimes described as like donkey's ears). The folded lip and vertical lateral sepals give each flower a very thin profile.
  • Leaves: distinctive yellowish green hooded at tip, held erect, unspotted.
  • Stem: hollow (unlike Spotted Orchids), yellowish-green, fairly short.
  • Habitat: Prefers basic soils such as dune slacks; despite name tends to flower in Cumbria at the same time as Northern Marsh orchid or even a week or so later.

 

EARLY MARSH ORCHID var. coccinea

This very distinctive and nationally rare variety of the Early Marsh Orchid only occurs in Britain and Ireland and is found in Cumbria only around the Duddon Estuary in dune slacks at Haverigg, North Walney and Sandscale.

  • Flower spike: Very short (Typically 10-15 cm tall) and squat like a hyacinth with an intense brick red/crimson colour.
  • Bracts: Usually heavily coloured with purplish anthocyanins.
  • Lateral sepals: Less reflexed than incarnata especially in new flowers.
  • Leaves: Similar to EMO but often broader and more green than yellowish-green.
  • Habitat: Found only in dune slacks where the water draining in is calcareous because of shells in the sand.

 

 

 

EARLY MARSH ORCHID var. pulchella

This distinctive variety is also endemic to Britain and Ireland. In appearance it is very similar to EMO in all respects, except the flower colour is mauve-purple or magenta and the lip markings are much thicker. Its habitat is however markedly different, being a species of acidic bogs. In Cumbria it therefore occurs in the east of the county in places such as Hale Moss (near Milnethorpe), Sunbiggin Tarn and Spadeadam.

 

NORTHERN MARSH ORCHID

  • Flower spike: Deep velvety magenta, often flat-topped in appearance when fully open.
  • Lip: Diamond or triangular shaped, unlobed or very shallowly lobed, with dots and dashes all over lip. The lip is paler around the mouth of the spur.
  • Lateral sepals: Held at around 45 degrees.
  • Leaves:Mid-green, held at 45 degrees, may be unspotted but any spotting consisting of tiny spots, mostly towards leaf tip.
  • Stem: Slightly hollow, washed purple towards the tip.
  • Habitat: Found in wider range of habitats than Early Marsh Orchid - as well the edges of dune slacks, it can be found on old industrial sites (ironworks and brickworks especially), at roadsides and on moorland.

 

 

SOUTHERN MARSH ORCHID

This species has recently appeared in Cumbria on the Shenstone roundabout, south of Kendal and alongside the A590 near Greenodd.

  • Flower spike: Purplish pink of varying intensity
  • Lip: Roughly circular, subtly three-lobed with tooth-like central lobe, paler towards the base with fine dark spots and short dashes
  • Lateral sepals: Held at around 45 degrees.
  • Leaves:Mid-green, held at 45 degrees, unspotted.
  • Stem: Stout, usually over 5 mmm in diameter, hollow.
  • Habitat: Found in wide range of habitats, not always calcareous and wet, including roadsides and industrial wasteland.

Hybrids are harder to identify, particulary as many are partially fertile and back cross with parents or even other hybrids generating a range of characteristics within a population (known as a hybrid swarm). Two examples are illustrated below:
 

 

Northern Marsh Orchid x Common Spotted Orchid
(Dactylorhyza x venusta)

  • Pleasing rose-purple i.e. colour intermediate between two parents.
  • Often taller than either parent through hybrid vigour (but weak hybrids are just as likely but tend to die out quickly).
  • Lip approximately diamond shape but distinctly three lobed like CSO and marked with dashes of NMO not loops of CSO.
  • Leaves very lightly spotted with tiny spots of NMO rather than heavy all over dark spotting of CSO.
  • Probably the most common orchid hybrid in Cumbria

 

 

Northern Marsh Orchid x Early Marsh Orchid
(Dactylorhiza x latirella)

  • Lovely colour, intense like NMO but more pink due to EMO.
  • Lip shape typical of NMO but partially reflexed like EMO and markings weak unlike NMO.
  • Lateral sepals held vertically like EMO.
  • Leaves yellow-green and unspotted like EMO.
  • Surprisingly uncommon.
  • Found growing in sandy slope half way up the side of a dune!
    (photo on left is an unconfirmed identification)