Burnt Orchid

Latin name: Neotinea ustulata (previously Orchis ustulata)

Family: Orchidaceae

The Burnt Orchid is a fascinating species. Its honey scented flowers appear between late May and early June when it is thought to be pollinated by flies, beetles and possibly butterflies. It is so-called because the unopened flowers at the top of the flowering spike are dark purple appearing burnt while the opened flowers at the base of the spike are white or pale pink with raised purple spots. After flowering each seed capsule can contain up to 4000 tiny seeds that can be dispersed hundreds of kilometers like dust in the wind.  But like many orchid species the seed relies on an association with specific fungi to aid germination.

This species likes warm, dry conditions and is found in tightly grazed chalk and limestone grassland on South-facing slopes. In the UK, the core areas for Burnt Orchids are parts of Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, East Sussex, East Kent and North Yorkshire. It consistently grows alongside a whole host of other wildflowers such as Kidney Vetch, Black Knapweed, Pignut, Gentians, Horseshoe Vetch, Common Bird's-foot-trefoil, Milkworts, Cowslip, Yellow-rattle and Great Burnet. It is also frequently seen alongside Common Spotted-orchid, Fragrant Orchid, Early-purple Orchid and Lesser Butterfly-orchid. In the Yorkshire Dales National Park it is very rare but there are records for this species in Coverdale, Wensleydale and Swaledale often in hay meadows with some calcareous influence.

In 2011, the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) surveyed a random sample of historic sites as part of their Threatened Plants Project (TPP). In 2012 experienced local naturalists and YDNPA surveyors visited some additional sites to contribute towards the BSBI’s national scheme. This is part of our on-going wildlife conservation work to implement the Local Biodiversity Action Plan.

At risk?

Although formerly widespread in the chalk and limestone regions of England, Neotinea ustulata has suffered one of the severest declines of all wild orchids during the last 50 years and is now rare. Losses have been largely due to changes in agricultural practices, such as ploughing and the cessation of grazing, and through habitat destruction by building and quarrying. Its status on the Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain (2005) is Endangered. It is a UKBAP priority species, in the BSBI’s National Threatened Plants Project and is a Local BAP species in Nature in the Dales: 2020 Vision.

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The unfolding of Grass Wood throughout the year is a story of rich fulfilment. From 'Wharfedale' by Ella Pontefract & Marie Hartley

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