Red helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra)

GenusCephalanthera (1)
SizeHeight: 40-60 cm (2)

Classified as Critically Endangered in Great Britain and fully protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (3).

This critically endangered orchid produces up to 12 attractive pink or purplish-pink flowers on a long spike (2). In profile, the flowers are similar in appearance to spiky tulips (4). One stem is usually produced, which may have a purple tint (3) and a downy appearance (1); the leaves are dark green in colour and are very long and thin (2).

In the UK, red helleborine is known from single sites in Hampshire, Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire. It was formerly recorded reliably in a number of other sites in Gloucestershire, and there have been records from Somerset, Sussex and Kent, but the reliability of these reports is not known (3). It also occurs throughout much of Europe, where it is vulnerable (3).

Inhabits deciduous woodlands, typically dominated by beech (3). It lives on free-draining slopes with calcareous soils and a short, patchy ground flora (3).

This orchid is a long-lived perennial, the first leaves are not produced until about six years after germination, and flowering does not occur until the plant is ten years of age (3). Flowers occur in June and July and do not produce nectar, instead they are believed to mimic the colours of certain bees to attract them, the bees then pollinate the flowers as they transport pollen from one flower to another (3).

Unsuitable habitat management and neglect can lead to problems of shading; predation by slugs may also be a problem at some sites (3).

Management undertaken so far includes scrub control, leaf litter removal, the use of slug pellets, and the removal of some trees to increase the amount of light reaching the ground (3). Hand pollination has been used to try to increase the amount of seed set, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is researching the germination and propagation of this species in an attempt to establish ex-situ populations from which plants can be taken for reintroductions (3).

For more information on the work on orchid propagation see The Sainsbury Orchid Conservation Project at:

Information authenticated by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew:

  1. Press, B. and Gibbons, B. (1993) Photographic Field Guide. Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe. New Holland Ltd., London.
  2. Grey-Wilson, C. (1994) Eyewitness Handbooks: Wild Flowers of Britain and Northwest Europe. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  3. Wigginton, M.J. (1999) British Red Data Books 1; Vascular Plants. 3rd Edition. JNCC, Peterborough.
  4. Fisher, J. (1987) Wild Flowers in Danger. H. F. and G. Witherby, Ltd., London.