Military orchid (Orchis militaris)

GenusOrchis (1)
SizeHeight: 30-60 cm (2)

Nationally Rare and Vulnerable in Great Britain, Vulnerable in Europe (3). Fully protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981)

The rare military orchid earns its name from the appearance of the pink to purplish flowers (2), which look like small soldiers. They have an ash coloured 'helmet' formed from three sepals, the petals are hidden by the helmet but the white lip which projects downwards from the helmet has distinct 'arms' and 'legs', spotted with red 'tunic buttons' (4). The leaves are green in colour and glossy, and typically there is a single flower spike (2).

In Britain this orchid is very rare, and is known only from Suffolk and the Buckinghamshire Chilterns (5). Elsewhere it is known throughout Europe reaching as far north as southern Sweden (2). Before the nineteenth century it was fairly widespread in the chalklands of southern England (5). By the mid-1920s, however, it was thought to have become extinct in Britain, but was rediscovered in 1947 (2).

Inhabits calcareous, open grasslands and scrubby areas (2). It occurs in a chalk pit in Suffolk (2).

This perennial orchid flowers in May and June (2), the main pollinators are thought to be hoverflies and bumblebees (6). After a seed germinates, it is thought that it can take about four years before leaves appear and a further four years before the plant produces flowers (2). A single plant can live for up to 15 years (6).

The Greek name Orchis means testicle, all members of this genus have two globular root tubers which led to orchid root being used as aphrodisiacs since classical times (5). The military orchid was called 'souldiers cullions' (which means 'soldiers' testicles) by John Gerard in The Herball of 1597 (5).

Climatic factors such as cold weather are likely to affect this warmth-loving species (2), which is on the very edge of its range in Britain (5). Over-shading due to a decrease in traditional woodland management is also likely to have contributed to the decline of this species (2). Trampling of seedlings is a risk (2), and as with all orchids, collecting has taken its toll.

The site near Marlow, Buckinghamshire is wardened, and the plants are protected from trampling by fencing. Habitat management at the site includes tree thinning and grazing by sheep to create suitable conditions for the orchid. Pollination is carried out by wardens to maximise the chance that seed will be set (5). At the site in Suffolk, the plants are also well protected (2). The military orchid is fully protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, so it is illegal to uproot, cut, sell or destroy this species.

For more on the story of the demise and return of the military orchid see:

Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.

Marren, P. (1999) Britain's rare flowers. Poyser Natural History, London.

Information authenticated by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew:

  1. IUCN Red List 2000 (March 2002):
  2. Grey-Wilson, C. (1994) Eyewitness Handbooks: Wild Flowers of Britain and Northwest Europe. Dorling Kindersley, London
  3. JNCC (March 2002):
  4. Marren, P. (1999) Britain's rare flowers. Poyser Natural History, London.
  5. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
  6. Wigginton, M.J. (1999) British Red Data Books 1; Vascular Plants. 3rd Edition. JNCC, Peterborough.