Heathland plants



Two of the orchids found in the New Forest grow on heathland and more open places: common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata). Both are quite common and look somewhat similar, with varying amounts of brown spots on their leaves. As with other grassland species, grazing is necessary to keep long grass and scrub at bay and to prevent the orchids from being shaded out.

The common spotted orchid is the taller of the two species.

Heath spotted orchid is the most common in the New Forest and is quite widespread. In the rest of Hampshire it occurs in the north-east heathlands. In the UK it is common and widespread in the south-west, Wales, Scotland and northern England, but it is scarce and decreasing elsewhere.

Heath spotted orchids prefer damper areas, flushes and the edges of bogs. It is quite easy to find in many grassy areas in June and July. Try looking around Beaulieu Road Station and the grassy area of Wilverley Plain, near Brockenhurst. The white to pink-purple flowering spikes can often be seen sticking up above the short vegetation between June and August.

ID tip – Flowers
: Heath spotted orchids grow to about 20cm tall and have a flat topped spike of medium-sized flowers of varying colours, with each flower having a variety of markings on the lower petal (called the lip). They can be told from common spotted orchids by looking at the shape of the lower lip. On common spotted orchids the lip is divided into three 'lobes', the central lobe normally being the longest, whereas on heath spotted the central 'tooth' is much smaller than the two either side, sometimes almost missing.

ID tip – Leaves:
On the heath spotted orchid the leaf spots are sometimes almost missing, while on others they are so profuse that the leaf looks almost black. All of its leaves are pointed, sometimes being keeled, almost like a letter ‘V’. The two lowest leaves of the common spotted orchid are the widest with rounded ends; all of its other leaves have pointed ends. The markings on the leaf have often been described as being ‘sausage’ shaped, whereas the markings on the heath spotted orchid are generally circular.

The southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa) and early marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata sub-species pulchella) grow in areas of the forest where heathland turns into wetland.
The New Forest has the second largest concentration of the bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) in Western Europe, following the West Highlands of Scotland. This plant needs acidic water conditions to thrive and elsewhere in southern England the populations have been severely affected by drainage work. It is yellow-green in colour and at just 3-12cm high is very small and difficult to see.

Have fun!

Four New Forest orchids (common spotted, heath spotted, early marsh and common marsh) readily hybridise with each other. Their offspring can be bewildering and beautiful and it’s fun trying to guess who the parents were.

  1. Heathland plants
  2. Bird’s-foot-trefoil
  3. Bracken
  4. Gorse
  5. Heather
  6. Lousewort
  7. Orchid (you are here)
  8. Petty whin
  9. Tormentil
  10. Wild gladiolus
  11. Sundew


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