Is Dorset the best early spider-orchid location in the UK?

Tiny early spider-orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) at Durlston in Dorset.

Early spider-orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) at Durlston Country Park, Dorset.

We are lucky in Dorset because we have what is possibly the best site for early spider-orchids in the UK. Ophrys sphegodes is also the first orchid to flower each year, heralding the start of the ‘orchid season.’

Go to Durlston Country Park, in Swanage, and you’ll find hundreds of these exotic-looking little flowers even though, overall, they are regarded as rare, growing on only a few sites in the UK. In Dorset, they also pop up near Dancing Ledge in their thousands, and there are a few at Townsend Nature Reserve that I know of.

Once you’re tuned in to what early spider-orchids look like – they really do resemble a spider – you’ll soon spot more and more. Be careful not to tread on them though, as some of them are really tiny, although in a good UK year they can grow up to about 20 cm.

This orchid is pollinated by the solitary, male, Buffish Mining Bee (Andrena nigroaene), who attempts to mate with it. In doing this he collects pollen on his head and this gets transferred to the next flower, and so on.

People travel from far and wide to see Dorset’s early spider-orchids

People travel miles and miles to see the early spiders; on the day I was there I met a guy who said that his friends had come all the way from Cumbria just to look at them.

Although Dorset is considered a great stronghold, early spider-orchids are also found in Hampshire, Sussex and Kent. There is apparently a strong colony of them at Samphire Hoe, near Dover, where they grow on the chalk spoil that was created by the Channel Tunnel excavations.

Today, I was told by a conservationist that he’s been notified of one early spider-orchid plant growing in Surrey. Reportedly just the one plant and he was going to go and see it.

Early spider-orchids are in flower for about three weeks in total, closely followed by early-purple orchids and green-winged orchids.

Early spider-orchid(Ophrys sphegodes). Growing at Durlston in Dorset.

Dorset early spider-orchid growing near Swanage, April 2022.

Early-spider orchid Dorset

A cluster of early spider-orchids basking in the sunshine on the coast near Dancing Ledge, in Dorset.

Early-spider orchid Dorset
Tiny early spider-orchid [Ophrys sphegodes] in Dorset.

Early Spider-Orchid Photography Workshops - April 2023

Group and 1-1 On Location (Purbeck Area) & includes a picturesque walk

Bee orchid [Ophrys apifera]. Photographed in Dorset.

Bee Orchid Photography Workshops - June 2023

Group and 1-1 On Location (Purbeck Area)

Dorset’s early-purple orchids

Early purple orchid [Orchis mascula] growing in an ancient Dorset wood

Early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) growing in an ancient, Dorset wood.

Early-purple orchids (Orchis mascula) start popping up in April, flowering through to June. It’s only early spider-orchids that flower earlier.

There are quite a few early-purples at Durlston Country Park, although they can be hard to spot at first, particularly because they’re not as plentiful as the early spider-orchids.

Easily confused with green-wing orchids (Anacamptis morio), they can be identified by usually having spotted leaves, and whereas the outer sepals of the green-wing orchids have noticeable green veins, the early-purples don’t.

Early-purple orchids can also occur with interesting colour variations: anything from the classic magenta through to pale pink and white.

According to Plantlife, alternative names for the early-purple orchid include adder’s meat, bloody butchers, red butchers, goosey ganders, kecklegs, kettle cases and kite’s legs.

Early purple orchid [Orchis mascula] growing on the Dorset coast

A striking early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) on the south coast of Dorset.

Green-winged orchids in Dorset

Green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) start appearing in Dorset meadows in April, around the same time as the early-purples. Generally short in stature, this striking, little orchid favours chalky, unimproved grasslands.

It gets its name from the green veins in the ‘hood’ of its flowers and can be identified by this and its unspotted and narrow leaves. Due to the jester-like part of its green and purple flowers, the morio part of its Latin name means ‘fool’.

Like early-purple orchids, green-wings can also occur in interesting colour variations, including white.

Anacamptis morio is classified as Near Threatened on the Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain.

Dorset green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) in a shade of pinkish mauve
Dorset green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) in purple
Dorset green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio)
Dorset green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) in a meadow with buttercups

Various shades of green-winged orchids in a meadow near Wimborne, Dorset.

Woodcock orchid x Fly orchid hybrid, Dorset

This orchid, believed to be a woodcock  (Ophrys scolopax) x Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) hybrid, was first discovered on a Dorset embankment in 2016.

I’d long wondered the exact location of these lovely orchids, but never really spent much time trying to find out… until now. All I knew was that they were sited alongside a busy road.

After a bit of internet sleuthing, I thought I’d pinpointed them on a map and, sure enough, it turned out that I had.

I think I can say that they were well worth the trip out to find them because they really are beautiful little plants. I also found a couple of fly orchids there and my photo, here, was the best of those orchids, although there might be more still to flower.

Here’s hoping that all these orchids continue to flourish in that same spot for many years to come.

[Update: June 2022 – sadly, I’ve heard that two of these orchid hybrids have been taken from this embankment. This is despicable, particularly as they won’t survive].

Dorset woodcock orchid (Ophrys scolopax) x Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) hybrid
Dorset woodcock orchid (Ophrys scolopax) x Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) hybrid

Dorset woodcock orchid (Ophrys scolopax) x fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) hybrid.

Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) growing in Dorset

Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) in Dorset.

Bee orchid, Worth Matravers, Dorset

Standing between 10-15cm tall, this little orchid is the bee orchid [Ophrys apifera]. It was photographed near Worth Matravers, Dorset.
Bee orchid [Ophrys apifera]. Photographed in May 2022 near Worth Matravers, Dorset.

Bee orchid [Ophrys apifera]. Photographed in Dorset, May 2022.

As I write this (May 29th) it’s the beginning of ‘bee orchid time.’ These are beautiful and distinctive-looking orchids, with pale green or pink petals and a brown, velvety lip that looks like a foraging bee.

Bee orchids mimic a female bee both in appearance and smell, to entice male bees to mate with them. The bee then flies on to the next plant and transfers the pollen from the previous orchid, thus aiding pollination.

If there are no male bees of the right kind, as is the scenario in Britain, the bee orchid has the ability to self-pollinate.

I’m not sure that there are as many of these orchids in the Purbecks as there have been previously. The area I searched today had just a fraction of what was there in 2020 and 2021. This might be because bee orchids only flower once in their lifetime and can take up to six years to reach their flowering stage, and so entire colonies can disappear.

Maybe it was just the area I was wandering around that had suffered a decline, perhaps due to the weather, but time will tell. Some species may just be flowering later this year.

Southern marsh-orchids, Dorset

The southern marsh-orchid is commonly found throughout Europe. It favours damp, lowland meadows and pasture, but is also able to tolerate drier habitats, making it rather adaptable.

It often hybridises with other orchids which can make identification tricky, especially as it also exhibits a wide range of variations, with purple, pink or white flowers.

Southern marsh orchid growing near Wimborne, Dorset

Southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa). Photographed in May 2022.

Southern marsh orchid growing near Wimborne, Dorset

Southern marsh-orchid, photographed in a Dorset meadow in May 2022.

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