Orchis mascula

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Orchis mascula
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Monocots
Order: Asparagales
Family: Orchidaceae
Subfamily: Orchidoideae
Genus: Orchis
O. mascula
Binomial name
Orchis mascula
(L.) L.

Orchis mascula, the early-purple orchid,[1] early spring orchis, is a species of flowering plant in the orchid family, Orchidaceae.


Orchis mascula is a perennial herbaceous plant with stems up to 50–60 centimetres (20–24 in) high, green at the base and purple on the apex. The root system consists of two tubers, rounded or ellipsoid. The leaves, grouped at the base of the stem, are oblong-lanceolate, pale green, sometimes with brownish-purple speckles. The inflorescence is 7.5–12.5 centimetres (3–5 in) long and it is composed of 6 to 20 flowers gathered in dense cylindrical spikes. The flower size is about 2.5 centimetres (1 in) and the color varies from pinkish-purple to purple.[2]: 878  The lateral sepals are ovate-lanceolate and erect, the median one, together with the petals, is smaller and cover the gynostegium. The labellum is three-lobed and convex, with crenulated margins and the basal part clearer and dotted with purple-brown spots. The spur is cylindrical or clavate, horizontal or ascending. The gynostegium is short, with reddish-green anthers. It blooms from April to June.

Close-up of a flower
Distinctive spotted foliage in some specimens


This orchid is devoid of nectar and attracts pollinating insects (bees and wasps of the genera Apis, Bombus, Eucera, Andrena, Psithyrus and Xylocopa, and sometimes beetles) with the appearance of its flower which mimics other species.

Orchids in the genus Orchis form mycorrhizal partnerships mainly with fungi in the family Tulasnellaceae.[3] Orchis mascula has been suggested to have only one mycorrhizal partner, in the Tulasnellaceae.[4]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The species is widespread across Europe, from Portugal to the Caucasus (Ireland, Great Britain, The Faroe Islands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Spain, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, most of Russia), in northwest Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco) and in the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq) up to Iran.[5] (Codes)[6]

It grows in a variety of habitats, from meadows to mountain pastures and woods, in full sun or shady areas, from sea level to 2,500 metres (8,000 ft) altitude.


The Latin specific epithet mascula means "male" or "virile"; this could refer to the robust aspect of this species, or to the shape of the two tubers, which resemble testicles.


As of June 2014, the World Checklist of Selected Plant Families recognizes five subspecies:[7]

  • Orchis mascula subsp. ichnusae Corrias
  • Orchis mascula subsp. laxifloriformis Rivas Goday & B.Rodr. (including O. langei, O. mascula subsp. hispanica)
  • Orchis mascula subsp. mascula (including O. mascula subsp. pinetorum)
  • Orchis mascula subsp. scopulorum (Summerh.) H.Sund. ex H.Kretzschmar, Eccarius & H.Dietr.
  • Orchis mascula subsp. speciosa (Mutel) Hegi


Cultivation and uses[edit]

A flour called salep or sachlav is made of the ground tubers of this or some other species of orchids. It contains a nutritious starch-like polysaccharide called glucomannan. In some magical traditions, its root is called Adam and Eve Root. It is said that witches used tubers of this orchid in love potions.

Culture and symbolism[edit]

Orchis mascula is commonly thought to be the plant referred to as "long purples" in Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 7):[9]

Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.

It is not known which "grosser name" Shakespeare might have had in mind, but folk names given to plants in the Orchis family, based on their resemblance to testicles, include "dogstones", "dog's cods", "cullions" and "fool's ballocks".[9]

However, Shakespeare's allusion is uncertain, as no contemporary herbals apply the name of "long purples" or "dead men's fingers" to Orchis mascula. (Sidney Beisly, writing in 1864, claimed that certain other species of orchid were known as "dead men's fingers" on account of their palmate roots, and that this name may have been mistakenly transferred over to Orchis mascula, but this has been called an "unverifiable assumption".)[10] Some scholars, such as Karl P. Wentersdorf, therefore prefer to identify the "long purples" with Arum maculatum.[10]

Another folk name of Orchis mascula is "Gethsemane" (after the Garden of Gethsemane, in which, according to the Bible, Jesus prayed on the night before his crucifixion). This name is derived from a legend "that O. mascula grew below the cross of Christ, and that the markings on the leaves are drops of Christ's blood".[11]


  1. ^ BSBI List 2007 (xls). Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Archived from the original (xls) on 2015-06-26. Retrieved 2014-10-17.
  2. ^ Stace, C. A. (2010). New Flora of the British Isles (Third ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521707725.
  3. ^ Molecular Ecology - Low specificity and nested subset structure characterize mycorrhizal associations in five closely related species of the genus Orchis
  4. ^ "Spatial variation in below-ground seed germination and divergent mycorrhizal associations correlate with spatial segregation of three co-occurring orchid species". Journal of Ecology. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2745.2012.01998.x. S2CID 82584331. Archived from the original on 2022-07-01.
  5. ^ "World Checklist of Selected Plant Families".
  6. ^ "World Checklist of Selected Plant Families TDWG Geocodes" (PDF).
  7. ^ "Search for Orchis mascula", World Checklist of Selected Plant Families, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, retrieved 2014-06-29
  8. ^ Synonyms in The Internet Orchid Species Photo Encyclopedia
  9. ^ a b Jenkins, Howard, ed. (1982). Hamlet. Thomas Nelson & Sons. pp. 374, 545. ISBN 0-17-443469-3.
  10. ^ a b Wentersdorf, Karl P. (1978). "Hamlet: Ophelia's Long Purples". Shakespeare Quarterly. 29 (3): 413–417. doi:10.2307/2869150. JSTOR 2869150.
  11. ^ Jacquemyn, Hans; et al. (11 February 2009). "Biological Flora of the British Isles: Orchis mascula (L.) L." Journal of Ecology. 97 (2): 360–377. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2745.2008.01473.x. S2CID 84491450.
  • Pierre Delforge - Orchids of Europe, North Africa And the Middle East - 2006, Timber Press
  • Pignatti S. - Flora d'Italia (3 voll.) - Edagricole – 1982, Vol. III
  • Tutin, T.G. et al. - Flora Europaea, second edition - 1993

External links[edit]