The Early Purple Orchid is the first wild orchid to bloom in Britain. When the bluebells are out, spreading their beautiful azure carpets throughout the woods, it is time to go in search of this gorgeous orchid.
It used to be a common sight in the countryside but in Suffolk there are very few meadows and hedgerows where it can still be found. We are lucky that it still thrives in some of our remaining fragments of ancient woodlands. Not far from where I live there is a wood where nobody seems to go very much. Here there are carpets of these wonderful orchids. Some years there are more than others. Last year was the best that I had ever seen it. This year there are still plenty of blooms but not such a thick carpet as last year.
The purple flowers grow on spikes. The lower lip of each flower has three lobes and the upper petals form a hood. The glossy rosette of leaves is usually heavily spotted.
When the flowers first open they have a delicate fragrance which becomes rank as the flowers mature. For some reason the scent is quite unpleasant in the evening. (I noted this whilst listening for the nightingales which used to be common in this wood. So far I haven’t heard any this year.)
The colour of these orchids ranges from dark purple to pink.
Very occasionally you come across a white one. The leaves of the paler ones and the white ones do not have spots.
A drink used to be made from the tubers called ‘salep’. There were stalls selling it in London and it was considered a very wholesome drink. In the nineteenth century the essayist and poet, Charles Lamb wrote: ‘a basin of it at three halfpence, accompanied by a slice of bread and butter at a halfpenny is an ideal breakfast for a chimney sweep.’
The name Orchis is Latin for testicles, so called because of the distinctive shape of the tubers. ‘Mascula’ is Latin for masculine and perhaps that is why in times gone past it was used as an aphrodisiac. Gerard called orchids ‘Satyrions’. They were supposed to be the food of satyrs and as such led to their excesses. In mythology Orchis was the son of a satyr and a nymph. Culpepper said of the plant: ‘It provokes lust exceedingly’.
As today, 23rd April, is William Shakespeare’s birthday, let’s see what the Bard had to say about Early Purple Orchids. He had such a profound knowledge of wild flowers and he called these orchids: ‘Long Purples’. It was one of the flowers that the poor mad Ophelia wove into her garland in Hamlet:
‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come,
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.’
The fourth wednesday of the month is Wildflower Wednesday. This meme is hosted by Gail at clayandlimestone blog. It is a chance to celebrate our wild flowers. Do join in and tell us about the wild flowers you are enjoying at the moment.