Northern Marsh Orchid

posted in: Gardening | 17
pink Dactylorhiza majalis ssp. purpurella | Northern Marsh Orchid
Dactylorhiza majalis ssp. purpurella | Northern Marsh Orchid

Many many years ago I found much to my surprise and excitement a native terrestrial orchid growing in the garden. The Northern Marsh Orchid is part of the Dactylorhiza group  Dactylorhiza majalis ssp. purpurella. The Northern Marsh Orchid grows wild in the North of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales while it is rare elsewhere in the UK.  It's another one of my hardy UK garden worthy natives. Furthermore it loves damp conditions though not wet feet. So no wonder it likes my garden!


It's derived from the greek words dactylos meaning finger and riza meaning root referring to it's annual finger-like rhizome roots.


This family of orchids hybridize very easily with others in the Dactylorhiza group and are quite variable in their appearance. Mine bloom every June. They produce a dense cylindrical inflorescence with a square top. The inflorescence has about 16 light purple coloured flowers aprox 1.8 cm long with a lower lip which curls back ever so slightly. The plants have oblong and unspotted leaves and grow to around 20 cm tall.

Map of where Northern Marsh Orchid can be found in the UK.
extent of the Northern Marsh Orchid habitat in the UK
Dactylorhiza majalis ssp. purpurella | Northern Marsh Orchid | macrophotography
Dactylorhiza majalis ssp. purpurella | Northern Marsh Orchid

Establishing Northern Marsh orchids in the garden


Firstly it is illegally to dig these orchids up from the wild. Northern Marsh orchids are quite hard to establish in any garden from seed as there needs to be the right type of mycorrhizal/symbiotic fungi present in the soil when the seeds germinate. Poor and unfertilized soil is best. It should have some symbiotic fungi present too.


They grow in a south easterly scree bed in my garden. This has proved to be the perfect place for a population of native terrestrial orchids to establish. Though how the first one established there intrigues me. I've never discovered any of these growing in our locality YET!...unless there was a seedling in the pot of thyme.

Sowing Northern Marsh Orchid Seeds


About five years ago I collected and sowed the orchid seeds in the same area as an experiment just to see if I had the right symbiotic fungi in the soil.  The seed was like fine dust. As a result I had to sow the seeds when it was a very calm autumn day. Down on my knees really close to the gravel so that they wouldn't blow it away.  I then watered the seed into the gravel and forgot all about them.


You need Patience

Well I did!...but as they say patience is a virtue. It takes about 2 years for the orchid to show any leaf growth. While 4 - 6 years for them to flower.
This year a 2nd Northern Marsh orchid has flowered - only it's about 2.5 metres away from where I sowed the seeds. While 10 more orchids have quite large leaves but no flowering stems in the area where I originally sowed the seeds. Once their underground rhizomes are big enough I'm sure they'll start to flower as well.....and here's hoping that some more will  in 2013!
In the meantime this autumn I'll sow even more of the seeds as I now have two plants to harvest from.

a rose aphid - Macrospihum rosae on Northern Marsh terrestial native orchid

Follow Rosie Nixon:

Photography Tutor and Gardener

Rosie is a garden photographer, writer and nature lover. She enjoys soaking up nature and is easily distracted from doing the weeding by anything that flutters, flies, buzzes, creeps or crawls! She enjoys sharing the beauty of creation through her photography. Rosie has been featured on TV on BBC2's The Beechgrove Garden and she uses the outdoors as her natural light studio. Her work can be seen at one of Scotland's only photography galleries - Close Gallery, 4b Howe Street, Edinburgh. She also writes and shares her nature images on

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17 Responses

  1. Richard Havenga


    Your Northern Marsh Orchid photographs are marvelous! The inflorescence on this orchid is enticing, inviting, and well, sensuous.

    What a pleasant surprise.


  2. Pieces of Sunshine

    Tiny little orchid Rosie. Love your last two photos, they seem to capture the beauty of this delicate flower perfectly. Good on you for persevering with seeds, may your patience be richly rewarded.

  3. Melanie

    That's exciting that you have been successful growing them from seed. We have several native orchids here in BC. The former empty lot next to mine had a colony of orchids, calypso bulbosa, growing. I'm kicking myself that I didn't dig it up when I had the chance and transfer it over to my property because now there is a house standing where it use to grow! There is another orchid a lone Cypripedium montanum growing in a patch of ajuga in the university gardens. Given your success I'm wondering if I could harvest seeds from it and try and establish them in my garden.

  4. Kalantikan

    Wow Rosie, you got a mine there! Orchid seeds are not planted that way because of the difficulties and risk of growth. But they thrive well, fast and plenty in bottled media. I wonder if they do that there in Scotland for that orchid. It is a common practice here in our country and most of Asia. If only you can have someone propagate it in the bottled media, you will get a lot of plants from each fruit/pod. The flower is very beautiful. If only i am near you i can help!

  5. Caroline Gill

    Your first photo (in particular) truly captures the essence of the flower for me … the delicacy, the complexity, the fragility and that strange mix of bold colour and ballet-like poise.

  6. Rosie leavesnbloom

    @Kalantikan Andrea I do know someone who propagates orchids in bottle media. I must ask him if he thinks these are suitable and find out how to do it. I've seen loads of tiny orchids germinating in his bottles.


    What a pretty native orchid, Rosie. I love how you photographed it too. Lucky they grew from seed, you must have done everything right for them since they came up so nicely.

  8. Alistair

    These hardy orchids are very special Rosie and your pictures of them are fabulous. We had a good clump of this in our woodland for about ten years, then when I repositioned it the plant started to weaken an last year did not come through. That'll teach me.

  9. Lucy

    If the weather carries on as it is, you may need to find orchid boots.

  10. trevor adamson

    i have had a marsh orchid growing in one of my chrysanthemum pots for about 5 years now and last year another one grew along side of it and this year they are both coming again, the birds must have something to do with the appearance of the first one, i will put a photo on here when they bloom, i also have two large orchids in my kitchen window and this year they have 46 blooms between them.

    • Anonymous

      I found purely by accident that dropping the seeds into an old clay pot covered in moss results a yearly supply of these orchids. The moss separates easily and the orchids just lift out without any damage to the roots. Replace the moss ready for next year. As i have been doing this for six years it never fails. Eleven this year.P.S.Gardens full of them.

  11. Running man

    I have dozens of these in my garden. The original one was rescued from a building site. When they finish flowering. I drop the flower head in a trough I grow strawberrys in. When the small plants appear transplant them. I use a drill to remove a plug from the lawn and drop the orchid in. They are stunning. Mowing the lawn is a nightmare though

  12. Olliebears

    Sorry I know this is a very late comment but I too have grown this type of orchid from seed. But also as you live so close thought you may be interested to know I also grow cymbidium orchids outside too and other tropical plants, not bad for Scotland. My others include bird of paradise(Strelitzia, Elephants ears (Alocasia, Rice paper plant (Tetrapanax)and Kaffir lily (Clivia)