Quick facts

Common names: early purple orchid, blue butcher, adder’s meat, goosey ganders, kite’s legs, dead man’s fingers

Scientific name: Orchis mascula

Family: Orchidaceae (orchid)

Origin: native

Flowering season: spring

Habitat: ancient woodland, grassland, hedgerows and road verges

What do early purple orchids look like?

As the name suggests, the early purple orchid is one of the first of the orchid flowers to bloom during spring. It grows up to 40cm in height.

Leaves: Dark green, large, shiny with darker purple-green splodges in lines running up the leaf. Blade-like in shape.

Flowers: Several spikes of rich purple-pink flowers. White flowers do also occur, although they are uncommon. Each plant can consist of as many as 50 flowers.

Early purple orchid with blurred background

Credit: Ross Hoddinott / naturepl.com

Where to find early purple orchids

Early purple orchids can be found in ancient woodland, grassland, hedgerows and road verges across the UK, although they are scarce in central England and areas of Scotland.

Early spider orchid flowers

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Early purple orchid in flower close-up

Credit: Patrick Roper / WTML

Value to wildlife

When the flowers first open in early spring, their sweet smell attracts bees and other insects to pollinate them, despite having no nectar. Once fertilised, the smell becomes unpleasant.

Did you know?

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, references are made to the early purple orchid as ‘long purples’ and ‘Dead Men’s Fingers’.

Mythology and symbolism

The early purple orchid has two root-tubers; one full and large, and one slack and small. According to the Greek physician Dioscorides, if a man was to eat the orchid’s full tuber, a boy would be born, whereas if a woman ate the smaller one, it would be a girl.

The plant was once known in the Scottish Highlands as ‘Gràdh is Fuadh’, meaning ‘love and hate’. This was because it was believed that eating the larger root of the orchid would make someone fall in love with you, but eating the smaller one would make them hate you.

Some believe that the purple spots on the leaves of the early purple orchid have religious connotations, and are actually the drops of Christ’s blood from his crucifixion.

Did you know?

Once fertilised, they begin to smell of tomcat urine.

Uses of early purple orchids

The early purple orchid has been used for a variety of purposes throughout history. During classic times, mixtures of orchid root and milk were used as an aphrodisiac. It was believed the fuller tuber would excite desire, and the slack one would restrain it.

In the 19th century, ‘salep’ or ‘saloop’ was a popular and nutritious drink made by grinding the orchids into flour and mixing them with honey, spices and hot water or milk. It was said to be effective against hangovers.

Early purple orchid trio in grass

Credit: Guy Edwardes / naturepl.com

Threats and conservation

While the early purple orchid is widespread throughout the UK, it is threatened by destruction of woodland and loss of grassland habitats due to farming methods.

Early spider orchid flowers

Blog

9 rare and beautiful wild UK orchids

Laura Cottam  •  29 May 2019

Orchids are some of the most beautiful and unique wild plants you'll see in the UK. They are rare but well worth finding if you are up for the challenge.

Explore orchids