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Heath Fragrant-orchid
Gymnadenia borealis

Of the three species of Fragrant-orchids (Chalk Fragrant-orchid Gymnadenia conopsea, Marsh Fragrant-orchid Gymnadenia densiflora and Heath Fragrant-orchid Gymnadenia borealis) that occur in the UK, the Heath Fragrant-orchid is most common in the north and west of Britain with localised populations in the south. Due to problems with identification, little is known about the conservation status of Heath Fragrant-orchid, but habitat degredation and loss will no doubt have lead to serious declines in some areas. Until recently the Fragrant-orchids were regarded as merely subspecies or forms of one species, but genetic studies have revealed that they are sufficiently different to warrant separate species status. The three are extremely difficult to tell apart, and they are also frequently confused with Pyramidal Orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis because of the similarity in colour and flower-shape. In the case of the Pyramidal Orchid, however, the flowerhead is more compact and oval when fully open, whereas the Fragrant-orchids have laxer, narrower and more pointed infloresences. The habitat in which Fragrant-orchids grow is the key to separating the species from one another, although the Heath Fragrant-orchid is more tolerant of mildly acidic conditions than the other two species of Fragrant-orchids; however, it does occasionaly appear on chalk-based downlands and in damp pastures. Heath Fragrant-orchid also grows on roadside verges and on grassy heathland. The flowering time for Heath Fragrant-orchid is from June to August, and the flowers are usually deep pink to lilac. In Europe, Fragrant-orchids can be found from Scandinavia in the north to the Mediterranean region in the south, although records do not often distinguish the precise species, merely referring to them as Fragrant-orchids.

Distribution Map Key Features
distribution map

Records for the Heath Fragrant-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.

Plant: 10 to 25cm tall, occasionally to 30cm; stem mostly green becoming brownish towards the top.
Leaves: mid-green, 3 to 5 narrow, keeled, loosely erect leaves situated at the base of the stem, sometimes in two ranks. There are also 2 to 3 smaller, narrower bract-like leaves on the upper stem.
Bracts: green to purple, strap-shaped, tapering-to-points.
Flowers: generally smaller than those of the other two Fragrant-orchids; deep pink to lilac. The upper sepal and petals form a hood over the flower lip, and the lateral sepals are more or less horizontal, sometimes angled slightly downwards. The upper and lower margins of the lateral sepals are rolled backwards. The lip is flat and as wide as it is long; the lobes are far less defined than in the other two species of Fragrant-orchids. The flowers have a strong sweet, somewhat clove-like scent.

Image Gallery for Heath Fragrant-orchid Gymnadenia borealis


Pollination Taxonomy & Hybrids

No specific information available, but the difference in shape and size of the Heath Fragrant-orchid flowers may suggest that it has different pollinators from those that visit the other Fragrant-orchid species.

The specific name borealis means 'northern' and refers to the predominantly northern distribution of this species.

Britain's three species of Fragrant-orchids may hybridise, but confirmation of this is difficult. There are several intergenetic hybrids recorded. A hybrid with the Small White-orchid Pseudorchis albida has been recorded in Yorkshire and Scotland but has no formal name. Similarly a hybrid with Early Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata found in Cornwall has no formal name. X Dactylodenia varia is a hybrid with Northern Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza purpurella, X Dactylodenia st-quintinii is a hybrid with Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii, X Dactylodenia evansii is a hybrid with Heath Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza maculata.

Articles about Heath Fragrant-orchid in JHOS