A Guide: Summer Orchids at Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe NNR

Cliff Morrison

Early June to mid-July is the prime time for spectacular orchid displays across the reserve, particularly in the wetter areas, although some species are equally at home in the dryer grasslands. There are seven species of orchid to be found on the reserve in 2021.

purple and yellow flows grow in a grassy meadow

Southern Marsh-orchids along with some Early Marsh-orchids June 2021

The number of orchids varies considerably from year to year, often being dependent upon the extent of rainfall. A dry spring in 2020 reduced the number of pyramidal orchids in the dunes, but despite a very dry April this year, a very wet May has seen many 100s of pyramidal orchids where there were only 10s last year.

Southern marsh-orchids, by far the most numerous species on the reserve are typically the first orchids to appear in early June around dune slacks and wetter areas. They are a very variable species, often the most robust whilst also being rather small and varying in colour from pinkish purple to dark purple.

Several purple flowers with green stems grow out of the grass
2 purple flowers with green stems and leaves

Southern Marsh-orchids

Early marsh-orchids, typically pale pink, are confined to the wetter areas and are much less common than southern marsh orchid. A subspecies of early marsh-orchid, ‘coccinea’, occurs around UK coasts, but probably only in 3-4 sites in England. ‘coccinea’ looks very different to its species type, ‘incarnata’ and appearing later, being much shorter, yet more robust with a deep brick red colouration. From just a small number of ‘coccinea’ here a few years ago, in just one area of the reserve, there are several 1,000 now and so the reserve is an important site for it.

A green, thick stemmed plant with pink flowers at the top
Several dark pink flowers grow out of the grass
A dark pink flower with green eaves growing off the stem

Early marsh orchids ‘incarnata’ and the much smaller but stocky rare subspecies ‘coccinea’

Common spotted orchid is the third member of this Dactylorhiza group of orchids and can be found in the drier grassland areas, but here it is not common at all, with just a few specimens to be found.

Perhaps the favourite orchid for many people is the bee orchid, which is to be found in short grassland, particularly close to the edge of the circular footpath at Rimac, where several plants are to be found.

Pyramidal orchids come into flower in mid-June and can be found even on high dunes in favourable years, such as 2021.

A pale pink flower with darker purple petal grows in the grass
3 purple bushy flowers grow out of the grass with yellow flowers in the background

Bee Orchid and Pyramidal Orchid

Marsh Helleborine, as the name suggests is a wetland species coming into flower from mid-June to early August and has pale creamy white flowers tending to pale purple. This is a plant to be found largely in the Rimac area.

Finally, the last orchid on the NNR is probably the least conspicuous, often in dense damp grassland in clumps, but its pale green-yellow flower spikes can be quite attractive.

An orchid with 13 cream flowers growing out of the vertical stem. There is grass in the background
A tall vertical stem with yellow flowers growing along its length. There is grass in the background with purple flowers growing

Marsh Helleborine and Common Twayblade

To find out more about orchids in our sand dunes, you can watch the recording of a talk by botanist and orchid expert Leif Bersweden on our YouTube channel.