Irish Wild Orchids
Ireland has 30 native species one of which, the Western Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza occidentalis), is unique to the island. They represent a wonderful heritage of which everyone should be aware. As with so much of the natural world whether it be plants, insects, birds or the stars in the night sky, until you “get your eye in” diversity goes unnoticed. However once your eye is trained you will appreciate detail and so be rewarded with the capability of spotting the unusual. This wisdom applies to Irish wild orchids and it is worth the effort of learning their identification.
Some Irish orchids are readily identifiable such as the delightful Bee, Butterfly, Pyramidal and Common Spotted orchids while others are more challenging and a few are inconspicuous and only of botanical interest.
Irish native orchids are all terrestrial (ground-growing) and to varying degrees habitat specific. They are usually found in undisturbed localities in soil low in nutrients and where there is little competing vegetation. Some prefer wet typically acidic locations while others must have dry often alkaline soils in order to flourish. In areas where marsh and dry habitats occur close by you can observe a wide diversity of orchid species in close proximity. There is no finer example of this than in the Burren of County Clare with its fissured limestone paving alongside pockets of wet peaty soil. Other reliable sites for seeing orchids in Ireland include:
- North Bull Island in Dublin
- Mullaghmore, County Sligo
- The Raven, County Wexford
- Lady Dixon Park in Belfast
- Killard Point in County Down
Irish orchids flower in succession from early May until late July depending upon the species and by late summer their seed pods will have ripened and opened allowing the wind to disperse the dusty seeds over large distances. After producing seed the leaves wither and the orchid’s nutrients and carbohydrates gained during the summer are then stored in underground tubers during the winter dormancy until the following spring.
You can grow some Irish orchid species in your garden or in pots but this requires knowledge and the novice usually fails. Furthermore it is both immoral and illegal in Ireland to collect orchids from the wild. If you are determined to grow native species then you should join the Irish Orchid Society where you will be advised on how to purchase laboratory propagated plants and obtain cultural advice otherwise it is better just to marvel at them in the wild where they always look at their best complemented by other native flora.
Did you know...
The Irish name for orchid is “Magairlín” (pronounced “moggerleen”) which means testicle and refers to the suggestive shape of the tubers of the native Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula). Interestingly the Greek word for the genus Orchis has the same connotation.
A compact digital camera is very useful for taking photographs of orchids on field trips which can then be identified later in comfort at home!
Try your hand at orchid painting or photography as a hobby.
Vanilla flavouring is obtained from the seed pods of the orchid Vanilla planifolia. The Aztecs first realised the potential of both vanilla and chocolate when they were combined in a drink called “xocolatl” (meaning bitter water from which the word chocolate is derived). Xocolatl was believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac!
Early Purple Orchid
The native Early Purple Orchid may have been the “long purple” referred to by Gertrude in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” when describing Ophelia’s Garland.