Wildflower Wednesday. Early Purple Orchid. Orchid mascula.

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.

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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.
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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.
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IMG_7791 Very occasionally you come across a white one. The leaves of the paler ones and the white ones do not have spots.
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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.’

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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.

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42 Responses to Wildflower Wednesday. Early Purple Orchid. Orchid mascula.

  1. Anna says:

    A most informative and enjoyable post Chloris. What intriguing flowers and foliage. I’ve wondered over the years about the reference to ‘long purples’ in Hamlet so it’s great to have that particular mystery solved.

    • Chloris says:

      Shakespeare really knew his wild flowers, there are so many references to many different ones on his works. Of course wild flowers were so much more plentiful in his day. These lovely orchids would have been a familiar sight.

  2. AnnetteM says:

    What an interesting blog, Choris – I really enjoyed all the information and the great orchid photos.
    The only time I have seen wild orchids growing was in Austria in the Alps; we were on a mission to find a new wild flower every day as there were so many. We found these plants with spotted leaves and it was only to the end of our holiday that we saw some flowers and were delighted to find out they were orchids. I am not sure you should have published that bit about the aphrodisiac though, there will be even less of them in the woods next year!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Annette, I am glad that you enjoyed it. The wild flowers are wonderful in the Alps and so plentiful. You really have to search for Orchids here and know where to look.
      I don’t think anybody still believes that they are an aphrodisiac now. I hope not.

  3. I’ve never seen an orchid in the wild. You must need to know where they are. Very interesting post, Chloris. You always manage to provide some fascinating background knowledge – I take it you’re a great reader! Thank you!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Ali. I do rather go along with Cicero who said:’ ‘If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need.’ Gardening and reading are my twin passions. I like writing too that’s why I am doing this blog.
      Finding orchids is difficult. I have a wonderful book on the Orchids of Suffolk.

  4. Pauline says:

    Stunning flowers, good to know that some are surviving in the wild.

  5. Flighty says:

    An interesting and informative post. I’m not really an orchid fan, but it is always good to see our native ones. xx

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Flighty. It is good to see wild flowers of any kind in the countryside. I do keep going on about it, but since the 1940s 97% of our wild flower meadows have been lost. More and more wild flower species are becoming extinct all the time.

  6. Alison says:

    So very pretty, how wonderful that you have somewhere to go to see these wildflowers growing wild.

  7. Julie says:

    Love the extra bits of information Chloris, its quite sad that so much is lost now, I hope that with more awareness we will get to see more wildflowers thriving again.

    • Chloris says:

      I hope so too, the trouble is that so many species of wild flowers are lost for ever.
      More and more are under threat . Our only hope is that more people become aware of the problem and care enough.

  8. Annette says:

    I’m thrilled and feel very privileged to live in an area where orchids of all sorts are so abundant. They’re all coming up now and make my heart smile 🙂 Thanks for a beautiful post, Chloris!

    • Chloris says:

      Annette, I would love to see some pictures of your orchids and the wild flowers in your part of France.You are so lucky to live in an area where they are plentiful.

  9. Cathy says:

    Your photos of the orchids are lovely Chloris. I have seen the odd one here occasionally, so you are very lucky to have such a large patch of them nearby, and in different colours too! They remind me of the wild corydalis we see down near the canal – mostly purple, sometimes pink and creamy white.

  10. Laurin Lindsey says:

    Such lovely wild orchids. I love the history and Latin meanings. I sent a link to this blog to a good friend of mine that teaches Senior English at a private high school because I knew she would find all the connections so interesting. She just wrote me back and said she is using your blog today in her class : )

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Laurin. That is great that your friend could make use of my post as a teaching aid. I remember when I studied Hamlet at school, there was no explanation about what ‘Long Purples’ were. I have always loved wild flowers and I remember wondering what they could possibly be.

  11. What a fabulous set of pictures of orchids. We have quite a few around here but not in such quantity. Beautiful.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Elizabeth and apologies for the delay in answering. The spam filter is very useful but occasionally I find comments like yours there which are not spam at all. It is really annoying when that happens.

  12. rusty duck says:

    Well I’d stop short of lust but I do rather like them! I wonder if it would be possible to naturalise them in the woodland here.

    • Chloris says:

      That would be wonderful. I suggest you find a source to buy some plants. Trying to grow them from seed is really challenging. I believe they need specific mycorrhizal fungus for the seeds to grow.

  13. Shirley says:

    Gorgeous orchids! A wonderfully informative and entertaining post to go along with them.

  14. pbmgarden says:

    Interesting post Chloris. The deep purple orchid is scrumptious. Wonder why the scent would be unpleasant at night?

  15. Chloris says:

    Thank you. They are lovely. I could look at them for ages, each one seems a little bit different. I don’t know why the scent should be unpleasant in the evening. But I don’t think I imagined it. I must look it up and see if I can find out more about it. I’m not sure what they are pollinated by.

  16. Tina says:

    Oh, that orchid is so beautiful! Interesting about the scent. I’ve noticed certain plants in my part of the world are like that too–though not necessarily unpleasant, just more “fragrant” at certain times of the day/night. I hope you hear your nightingales soon.

  17. Mary says:

    Beautiful flower, fascinating history. I love the close-ups showing the different colors. Great post!

  18. Chloris says:

    Yes flowers are often more fragrant in the evening but I don’t see why they should smell unpleasant.
    No nightingales yet. They get scarcer every year.

  19. bittster says:

    I can never get used to the idea of orchids growing wild, they always seem so exotic to me. I never knew they had such a wild side to them, all that lust wrapped up in such an innocent looking plant!

    • Chloris says:

      Well they are innocent really. It is the people who looked at them who had the problem. The Doctrine of Signatures has a lot to answer for. But the theory goes right back to Dioscurides and Galen and I supposed back then it was as good an idea as any other.

  20. lizard100 says:

    What an interesting post. There’s so much detail here. I like the historical information too. Plants are such interesting things in their history.

  21. Chloris says:

    Thank you, I love to read about the history of plants too. It is endlessly fascinating to find out who discovered plants and when, and what they have been used for in history.

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