Dactylorhiza sambucina

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Elder-flowered Orchid
Dactylorhiza sambucina pink NRM.jpg
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Monocots
Order: Asparagales
Family: Orchidaceae
Subfamily: Orchidoideae
Tribe: Orchideae
Subtribe: Orchidinae
Genus: Dactylorhiza
Species: D. sambucina
Binomial name
Dactylorhiza sambucina
(L.) Soó (1962)
  • Orchis sambucina L. (1755) (Basionym)
  • Dactylorchis sambucina (L.) Verm. (1947)
  • Dactylorhiza latifolia (L.) H.Baumann & Kunkele
  • Orchis lutea Dulac
  • Orchis incarnata var. sambucina (L.) Lapeyr. ex Bubani
  • Dactylorchis sambucina (L.) Verm
  • Orchis schleicheri Sweet
  • Orchis fasciculata Tineo in G.Gussone
  • Orchis salina Fronius
  • Orchis laurentina R.Bolos ex Vayr.
  • Orchis guffroyi P.Fourn.
  • Dactylorhiza fasciculata (Tineo) H.Baumann & Künkele
  • also many names at subspecies and variety levels

The Elder-flowered Orchid (Dactylorhiza sambucina) is an herbaceous plant belonging to the family Orchidaceae.


The name of the genus Dactylorhiza is formed from Greek words δάκτυλος "daktylos" meaning "finger" and ρίζα "rhiza" meaning "root" and refers to the tubers of this plant, that are split into several tubercles. The specific Latin name "sambucina", refers to the smell of Elder (Sambucus nigra) emanating by some plants of this species.

The scientific binomial name of this plant was initially Orchis sambucina, proposed by the Swedish naturalist and botanist Carl von Linné (1707–1778) in 1755. The name was subsequently amended to the one currently accepted (Dactylorhiza sambucina), by the Hungarian botanist Károly Rezső Soó (1903–1980) in 1962. In German this plant is called Holunder-Knabenkraut, in French is called Orchis à odeur de sureau, in Italy is called Orchide sambucina.


Close-up on a flower of Dactylorhiza sambucina
Close-up on a flower of Dactylorhiza sambucina

Dactylorhiza sambucina reaches on average 10–40 centimetres (3.9–15.7 in) of height. These plants are bulbous geophytes, as they bring their buds in underground tubers or bulbs, organs that annually produce new stems, leaves and flowers. Furthermore these orchids are "terrestrial", because unlike "epiphyte" species do not on other plants of larger sizes.

This orchid has a short, quarrying and tubulous stem. The leaves are amplexicaul and vary from 4 to 7, the lower ones are oblong-obovate with obtuse apex, while the upper leaves are lanceolate with acute apex. Size of leaves: width 1 to 2.5 cm, length 6 – 12 cm.

The underground part of the stem has two webbed tubers each one more or less deeply divided into several lobes or tubercles (characteristic of the genus Dactylorhiza), the first one plays the important functions of supplying the stem, while the second one collects nutrient materials for the development of the plant that will form in the coming year.

The inflorescence is 5–10 centimetres (2.0–3.9 in) long and it is composed of flowers gathered in dense spikes. The flowers are placed in the axils of bracts membranous and lanceolate-shaped. The flowers reaches on average 10–15 centimetres (3.9–5.9 in) and bloom from mid-April to early July. Their colors vary from yellow with light reddish stains or purple speckled with darker spots on the labellum.

They are hermaphrodite and pollinated by insects entomophily, especially bumblebees (Bombus species, Apidae). These orchids are almost without nectar, but they are visited by various pollinator insects as they are confused with other plants with nectar. The seeds germination is conditioned by the presence of specific fungi.


Dactylorhiza sambucina is quite common and widespread throughout much of Europe from Portugal east to Finland and Ukraine. It is absent from the British Isles, the Low Countries, the Dinaric Alps and less frequent on the north side of the Alps.[1][2][3][4][5]


The Elder-flowered Orchid prefers fresh or dry meadows (subalpine and alpine grasslands), light woods and clearings or scrubland. They grow on siliceous and calcareous substrate, at an altitude of 300–2,000 metres (980–6,560 ft) above sea level.



  1. ^ a b Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families
  2. ^ Altervista Flora Italiana, Orchide sambucina, Dactylorhiza sambucina (L.) Soó
  3. ^ Castroviejo, S. & al. (eds.) (2005). Flora Iberica 21: 1-366. Real Jardín Botánico, CSIC, Madrid.
  4. ^ Pedersen, H.A. (2006). Systematics and evolution of the Dactylorhiza romana/sambucina polyploid complex (Orchidaceae). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 152: 405-434.
  5. ^ Griebl, N. (2008). Vorkommen und verbreitung der gattung Dactylorhiza in Österreich. Berichte aus den arbeitskreisen heimische orchideen 25(2): 80-118.
  • Pignatti S. - Flora d'Italia (3 voll.) - Edagricole – 1982, Vol. III, pag. 721
  • Tutin, T.G. et al. - Flora Europaea, second edition - 1993

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