Early purple orchid

Latin name: Orchis mascula

Height: 30-40cmEarly purple orchid

Where: Woods, grassy road verges and meadows; for example Inchcailloch; many places along National Cycle Route 7

When: Flowers late April and May

It is always exciting to find an orchid, because they seem such an exotic flower to find in our Scottish countryside. Early purple orchids are perhaps an especially welcome discovery both because they are the first of the year, and because they are easier than most to find.

Their tall, pinky-purple flower spikes appear at the same time as our bluebells – sometimes in the same woodland – though you are often just as likely to find them in meadows or roadside verges. The flowers have a distinctive smell – described as reminiscent of tom cats! This may explain their old Scots name, ‘Deil’s foot’. Or it may be that people believed the Devil’s footprints made the purple-black markings on the leaves, which distinguish them from most other orchids. Only common spotted orchids share the spotted leaves. But these don’t bloom until June, and have a much tighter, pyramid of flowers at the top of the stem.

Like all orchids they are protected by law, making it illegal to pick them or dig up their roots. If you were able to dig one up you would see why they are called orchids – the Latin word means ‘testicles’. The twin bulbs at their base were believed to be aphrodisiacs in the past!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods