Helleborines are a group of Orchids, they are in the genus Epipactis they have more chunky flowers than most British orchids, perhaps with exception to the Insect Orchids. They are somewhat like the exotic orchid you get in the Garden centres only much smaller and not so brightly coloured.
There are several different species in the UK, two are relatively common and they are the Broad-leaved Helleborine and the Marsh Helleborine. I have covered the Broad-leaved Helleborine on another page and the Marsh Helleborine does not occur in Woodland. It lives in Fens, Marshes and Dune slacks. I used to see them a lot when I lived in Norfolk. They are perhaps the most beautiful of the Helleborines being a cream colour and with fairly large flowers.
I have put the Narrow-lipped and Green Helleborine together because they look fairly similar and they both flower late in the year August time, unlike the Narrow-leaved and White Helleborine which bloom early in May/June time. These two are also in a different genus, they are Cephalanthera along with one other British species the Red Helleborine.
Both of these Helleborines, the Green and Narrow-lipped are fairly rare, and they both prefer woodlands with alkaline soils, also sometimes they are both found in dune slacks which are also alkaline. However the alkalinity in dunes is largely a result of the incorporation of sea shells into the dunes as they are forming whereas in woodlands it is due to the underlying nature of the rocks, limestone or chalk.
I found a single orchid growing in some woodland close to the River Wye in the summer of 2018. I knew it was a Helleborine and suspected that it was not the common Broad-leaved species, its leaves being not that wide. I took some photographs of it whilst in bud but then I had the misfortune to have to go on holiday!! When I came back a couple of weeks later I immediately went to see how it was getting on and it was gone….. no sign of it. Possibly I could not find it again, they are quite difficult to spot even when you know where they are. Most likely it had been eaten by deer or rabbits. The woods where it was growing do support several species of deer. Here are the photographs I took in 2018. At that stage I thought it was most likely to be a Green Helleborine.
In 2019 I again visited, on several occasions, the same woods; not just to look for this orchid but because it is a pleasant walk, although a bit on the steep side and it is claimed that it supports another Helleborine, the Narrow leaved Helleborine. I have not found it growing there. When I was in the vicinity of where I saw my special Helleborine I obviously inspected the area quite carefully…. Nothing.
At the beginning of August I was there are had a look as I passed the area but maybe not that intently as I was distracted by a butterfly, a Silver washed Fritillary which is sometimes encountered in open glades in woodlands but is a bit special. I took a few photographs of it and then decided to turn back. It is evidently a male, the females are a lighter colour and have slightly less markings on the wings (thanks to Ron Beddis for that, a local expert). Again I was distracted this time by some movement in the grass and this turned out to be a Longhorn grasshopper, once again I took a couple of shots of it… I glanced a little to my left and there was a Helleborine. Thank you Mr Grasshopper.
It was growing exactly where I had seen the 2018 specimen as best as I could remember. Glasses were rapidly put on. ( It did not need to be done rapidly, the orchid was not going anywhere) but I was quite excited! and on close inspection it was the Narrow-lipped Helleborine ….. a first for me. Lots of photos were taken and here are a few.
This is a close up of just one flower on the spike, they do hang down a bit so I had to lie on the ground and angle the camera up so as to get it face on as it were. Most important is the shape of the lip which is decidedly narrow and pointed, thus differentiating it from the Broad-leaved Helleborine where the lip is broad and rounded. Also the flower is quite greenish white with just the central area showing a purple colour.
Here are a few other shots.
This plant is fairly rare as I have said, I looked it up on the BSBI web site and it is only found in 86 tetrads out of the 2730 that make up Great Britain. Also I discovered that it was last recorded in the area where I found it at some point before 1930. So almost 100 years ago!! It does occur in Gloucestershire but in the area around Stroud.
I also looked up the Green-flowered Helleborine and that is more common being found in 134 tetrads also it has a more spread out distribution, including a record from near Chepstow on the Wye valley but again not recorded recently in this case not in the last 10 years . So far I have not seen a Green-flowered Helleborine. This is a photograph of one which was posted on the British wildflowers FB page I have got the owners permission to use it, many thanks to James & Dawn Langiewicz of ‘Bite your bum’.