Ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum)

Ghost orchid flowers
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Ghost orchid fact file

Ghost orchid description

GenusEpipogium (1)

As its common name suggests, the ghost orchid is a mysterious plant. It spends most of its life underground and has a tendency to disappear and suddenly reappear unexpectedly in an area (6). Furthermore, this orchid certainly does have a ghostly quality; it completely lacks chlorophyll, the green pigment found in most plants, and so has a pale, waxy appearance (6). The stem is translucent, slightly tinged with pink, and with many reddish streaks. Leaves are reduced to small scales at the base of the plant and higher up they take the form of one or two sheaths that fit snugly around the stem. One to four pale flowers are produced, which hang on fine stalks and are spotted with violet (2). This species has a long-lived underground storage organ known as a rhizome that is said to look like coral (3).

Also known as
spurred coral-root.
Stem length: 5 - 20 cm (2)
Size of flowers (measured vertically): 15 - 20 mm (3)

Ghost orchid biology

The ghost orchid is saprophytic, which means it obtains nutrients from dead organic matter. It lacks the green pigment chlorophyll as it does not photosynthesize. The underground rhizomes can live for a very long time, but they do not produce stems every year (4). The flowers are pollinated by various bumblebees and other insects (2), but seed is very rarely produced (4).


Ghost orchid range

This native orchid has occurred sporadically in Britain since 1970, but unfortunately has not been reliably recorded since 1986 (4). It has been found, typically singly, in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Herefordshire, and Shropshire. Its global range extends from north and central Europe south to the Pyrenees, the north of Greece and Crimea. It also occurs in Siberia, the Caucasus and Himalaya (2).

You can view distribution information for this species at the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

Ghost orchid habitat

Typically found growing in beech (Fagus), or more rarely, oak (Quercus) woodlands in deep leaf-litter or on rotten stumps (3) where there is very little or no ground flora (4).


Ghost orchid status

This orchid has not been reliably recorded in Britain since 1986 (4). It is specially protected in Britain under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (5).


Ghost orchid threats

The threats facing this species are unclear. Habitat loss is a known problem; the last recorded site for this species has since been planted with conifers (4).


Ghost orchid conservation

Should this ‘lost’ species reappear in the wild, conservation measures will swing into action. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are involved in the conservation of this and many other native orchids, and have established ex-situ propagation techniques, with the hope of successfully reintroducing the mysterious ghost orchid to its old haunts (7).

There may be further information about this species available via the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

Find out more

For more on The Royal Botanic Gardens see



This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:


Measures to conserve a species or habitat that occur outside of the natural range of the species. E.g. in zoos or botanical gardens.
A group of green pigments found in photosynthetic organisms (photosynthesis is a metabolic process characteristic of plants in which carbon dioxide is reduced, using energy absorbed by the green pigment chlorophyll. Organic compounds are made and oxygen is given off as a by-product).
Metabolic process characteristic of plants in which carbon dioxide is broken down, using energy from sunlight absorbed by the green pigment chlorophyll. Organic compounds are made and oxygen is given off as a by-product.
Rhizomes are thickened, branching, creeping storage stems. Although most rhizomes grow laterally just along or slightly below the soil's surface, some grow several inches deep. Roots grow from the underside of the rhizome, and during the growing season new growth sprouts from buds along the top. A familiar rhizome is the ginger used in cooking.
Term applied to a plant or plant-like organism that absorbs nutrients from dead plant or animal matter


  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (September 2003):
  2. Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G., and Moore, D.M. (1987) Flora of the British Isles 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Stace, C. (1991) New Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  4. Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. and Dines, T.D. (2002) New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. JNCC Species legislation (December 2003):
  6. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
  7. Kew Gardens - Wild facts (December 2003):

Image credit

Ghost orchid flowers  
Ghost orchid flowers

© Tom Leach /

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