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Early Marsh-orchid
Dactylorhiza incarnata

The Early Marsh-orchid is one of our most beautiful and enigmatic wild orchids. The flowers occur in four colours, and they are sufficiently different from one another to have all been given subspecies status: a pale salmon pink, Dactylorhiza incarnata subsp. incarnata; brick red, Dactylorhiza incarnata subsp. coccinea; purple, Dactylorhiza incarnata subsp. pulchella; and cream Dactylorhiza incarnata subsp. ochroleuca. The latter is confined to the East Anglian fens. In favoured habitats Dactylorhiza incarnata can carpet the ground in early spring, and in most good sites it is easy to find two or more of the subspecies growing in close proximity. In addition to the above there is also another subspecies. Sometimes called the Flecked Marsh-orchid or Leopard Orchid, Dactylorhiza incarnata subsp. cruenta is known only from part of western Ireland and a few sites in Scotland; it is classified as Endangered in the UK, while in Ireland, where it mainly occurs in The Burren, it is also under threat from habitat degradation. Early Marsh-orchid in all its variations flowers between mid May and late June. The subspecies which occur in England, Scotland and Wales are localised but can be abundant in good years. With the exception of Dactylorhiza incarnata subsp. pulchella (which is tolerant of more acid conditions and occurs in bogs and on heathland), these orchids favour alkaline substrates and can be found in fens, wet alkaline meadows and sand-dune slacks. On the European mainland, Dactylorhiza incarnata is recorded from Scandinavia in the north to Italy and Spain in the south.

Distribution Map Key Features
distribution map

Records for the Early Marsh-orchid from BSBI are shown on the map with most recent in front. (Hover the mouse over the small map to expand it.)

CLICK HERE to visit the BSBI website page for updated data and maps with separated data for individual record periods.

D. incarnata subsp. incarnata
Plant: 7 to 40cm but typically 20 to 40cm; stem pale green or yellowish, usually hollow.
Leaves: bright green; 3 to 5 broad, keeled sheathing leaves at base of stem, and 1 or 2 non sheathing leaves higher up.
Bracts: bright green, sometimes flushed pink.
Flowers: 10 to 70 flowers in a densely-packed inflorescence; pale pink, often salmon pink. Sepals and petals paler than the lip; upper sepal and petals form a tight hood over the lip. Lip pale pink, slightly lobed with lateral lobes deflected downwards, liberally covered with dark-pink dots within loops.

D. incarnata subsp. coccinea
Very similar to ssp. incarnata but a smaller, more squat plant with much darker, almost red, flowers. Its leaves are narrower and more pointed.

D. incarnata subsp. pulchella
The flowers of this subspecies are much closer in colour to Southern Marsh-Orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa and have darker, heavily marked flowers. Its tolerance of more acid condtions sets it apart.

D. incarnata subsp. ochroleuca
A much larger plant growing up to 70cm in height, with broad leaves and a robust stem. Its flowers are a pale creamy yellow. The lip is large and deeply tri-lobed. Found only in East Anglia.

D. incarnata subsp. cruenta
A more slender plant with more erect leaves. The majority of the plants have leaves that are marked with dark brown spots - sometimes on both sides. Its flowers are paler pink than those of D. incarnata subsp. pulchella, and the lips are distinctly tri-lobed with clearly defined loop markings with a few dots within. D. incarnata subsp. cruenta is limited to western Ireland and a few sites in Scotland.

Image Gallery for Early Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata


Pollination Taxonomy & Hybrids

Pollination is thought to be carried out mainly by various bees, and the seed set is good.

The specific name incarnata means 'flesh-coloured; pulchella means 'beautiful'; coccinea means 'scarlet'; cruenta means 'blood-coloured' and orchroleuca means 'yellowish white'.

Subspecies: as described above.

Variations: Dactylorhiza incarnata var. punctata is a small plant with dotted leaves; it is recorded from Hampshire, Yorkshire and the Isle of Coll. Dactylorhiza incarnata var. leucantha has pure-white, unmarked flowers and is rare. Dactylorhiza incarnata var. ochrantha has pale-yellow unmarked flowers.

Hybrids: Dactylorhiza x kernerorum is a hybrid with Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii. Dactylorhiza x carnea is a hybrid with Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii. Dactylorhiza x wintoni is a hybrid with Southern Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa. Dactylorhiza x latirella is a hybrid with Northern Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza purpurella. Dactylorhiza x dufftii is a hybrid with Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza traunsteinerioides. Dactylorhiza x aschersoniana is a hybrid with Irish Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza occidentalis.

Intergeneric Hybrid: X Dactylodenia vollmannii is a hybrid with a/the Gymnadenia species.

Articles about Early Marsh-orchid in JHOS