In late June we visited Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve in Lancashire (download a leaflet about the reserve). We were too late to see flowers on the reintroduced Lady’s Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium calceolus) on the reserve, but we had timed our visit perfectly for the Dark-red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens. Like the Lady’s Slipper, it is a member of the family Orchidaceae, which has well over 25,000 species worldwide. There are 56 native species in the UK.
In the British Isles, the Dark-red Helleborine is restricted to parts of the north of England, the Great Orme in Wales, the central and north-west Highlands of Scotland and the west of Ireland, including The Burren. It grows in rocky, limestone places such as cliffs, scree slopes and limestone pavements like those at Gait Barrows. Its most southerly colonies in England are in Derbyshire.
The plant is listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in the category “least concern”. In the British Isles, its overall distribution is stable and the number of known sites has increased in recent years, although the orchid can grazed by deer and rabbits – we found several plants with a nipped off flower spike. Quarrying can destroy its habitat, though fortunately areas like Gait Barrows are now protected from removal of rocks to make rockeries. The Online Atlas of the British and Irish flora has a map of the current distribution in the British Isles. Further afield, Dark-red Helleborines occur from the subarctic (including Finland) in the north to the Mediterranean region and eastwards to parts of Western Siberia. They are also naturalised in the United States, in one part of Vermont.
The orchid has beautiful, blood-red flowers and these look lovely against the grey-white of limestone. We were so pleased to find our first flower, then more and more. At Gait Barrows they seem to cluster in particular areas and other bits of limestone pavement have none. The plants are often near trees, albeit stunted ones, such as Ash trees that creep through the grykes (fissures) in the limestone pavement, rather than towering overhead as forest giants.
In his superb “A Pocket Guide To The Orchids of Britain and Ireland“, which I highly recommend, Simon Harrap relates how studies in continental Europe suggest that the Dark-red Helleborine is associated with ectomycorrhizal fungi. Often the orchids may gain nutrients from the roots of nearby trees via these fungi, and isotope studies have shown that the orchid takes around 65% of its nitrogen and 15% of its carbon from fungi.
There are some excellent photos of Dark-red Helleborine on the Wildflower finder website. In the meantime, I leave you with a photograph of the Dark-red Helleborine’s habitat at Gait Barrows.