The Early Purple Orchid is one of the commonest British orchids, Twayblade is also very common but easily overlooked and the other one is Common Spotted Orchid. Early Purple Orchids are quite spectacular and obviously purple in colour, though the depth of purple can vary and you can evidently get white ones though I have never seen one. As you can see in the photo they flower at the same time as bluebells, (they are just visible in the background), so not that early for a woodland flower….mid May time is about normal. The photo in the heading was taken on 29th April 2018, so they do start to flower in mid April.
The other diagnostic feature is that the leaves usually though not always have large purple, sometimes almost black spots on them, however this is not exclusively restricted to the Early Purple orchid, several other species exhibit this feature, such as the Marsh and Spotted orchids.
This orchid will grow in a range of different light conditions, the one in the photo was taken in woodland but was on the edge so was receiving more light than had it been more central. I have seen some superb specimens growing on a roadside bank in France, this bank had no hedge so was completely open. On checking the Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora it says that it ‘ grows on a variety of neutral and calcareous soils, and is most frequent in woodland, coppices and calcareous grassland. However, it also occurs in hedgerows, scrub, on roadsides and railway banks and on limestone pavement and moist cliff ledges. 0-880 m’
Again reference to this site shows that it is a plant which will tolerate quite a wide range of conditions, it will grow in most levels of light, it prefers damp soils but again can be found in quite a range of soils some quite low in water content. pH is the same preferring pH 7 but growing in soils from pH 1 though to 9! It will even tolerate some degree of salt, so in these respects quite remarkable for an Orchid.
It can grow quite tall and have an impressive flower spike which is possibly the origin of its species name mascula from masculine, of course that would not be politically correct now, but it was named before PC was invented. More likely the mascula comes from the shape of its tuberous root which evidently resembles a pair of testicles. I have never dug one up and never will as apart from being illegal, it is simply not right to interfere with wild flowers.
In some parts though the roots have been used as a food source. It contains a starchy material which can be made into a type of flour called Salep. Salep flour is consumed in beverages and desserts, especially in places that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. An increase in consumption is causing local extinctions of orchids in parts of Turkey and Iran. Salep is a traditional winter beverage in Turkey. It is sometimes served with iced coffee at certain coffee shops in Istanbul. (with thanks to Wikipedia for this info) It is claimed that Salep has aphrodisiac properties but given the shape of the tubers from which it is made, this is not surprising.
The flowers initially smell of honey however after they have been pollinated the smell is more like cat urine. Pollination is carried out by insects with quite a long proboscis as the flowers have a fairly long spur which projects back and up from each individual flower, these can clearly be seen in the close up photo to the left.