Some Urban Orchids in Scotland

For many people there is something special about orchids and they can become a major botanical preoccupation for some. When searching for orchids one does not normally think of looking in towns. However sometimes they may be found in urban settings.

Worldwide, orchids constitute one of the largest plant families, but only a limited number of taxa occur in Scotland and only some of these have been recorded in towns and cities.

The orchid flower is made of 6 segments, 3 outer sepals and 3 inner petals, but the detailed structure differs between species depending on pollination strategy. Orchid seeds are tiny and this family is very dependent on mycorrhizal association.

A few orchid species grow well in human-influenced habitats and these tend to be the ones that are seen in towns. Others may sometimes occur when a rural-type habitat is preserved in an urban area.

Common Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsia). This is one of the commonest orchids in Scotland. As the name suggests the leaves are spotted and its flowers are varying shades of pink. The lower lip of the flower is deeply divided into 3 lobes.

Dactylorhiza fuchsii, the Common Spotted Orchid

I have seen it in several sites in Dundee, including a churchyard, a disused school site and a patch of waste ground. It did not persist in any of them mainly because of re-development. It can also be seen on some road verges. This species has been recorded in most parts of Scotland, including Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Northern Marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella). This is another common and beautiful Scottish orchid. Its leaves usually lack spots and the flowers are deep purple. The lip is not lobed and is often diamond shaped. Like D. fuchsia it usually flowers between May and July and in common with many other orchids may appear intermittently on particular sites. It often grows in damp places and may be seen on road verges

I know a persistent roadside site in West ferry, Dundee and two other road verge locations in the north of Dundee. In Tain it grows on the edge of the golf course and in Dingwall it is to be seen on disused land by the railway line. It is widespread in other parts of Scotland.

Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). This is most common in Western Scotland and the Central Belt but is scarce in many parts of Eastern Scotland.

It has spirally arranged leaves and the flowers are green or pink to purple. It flowers rather later than the above species, from July to September.

It has been recorded in urban habitats in the city of Glasgow where it may appear in gardens, road verges and graveyards. Further east there is a persistent site on a path by an allotment in Perth.

Common Twayblade (Neottia ovata). This orchid has a very characteristic pair of sessile leaves and a long spike. The inflorescence consists of small, usually dull yellow to green flowers. It is long-lived and often only appears erratically.

Most sites are rural, but it has sometimes appeared in towns, often in man-made sites. I have seen it in an old quarry on the edge of Dundee and in a fragment of wood in a housing estate in Dingwall. It is an unobtrusive plant and is easily overlooked.

A few other orchid species have been recorded infrequently in towns and cities and these include:

Greater Butterfly Orchid (Plantanthera chlorantha). This has been seen on a railway embankment in Glasgow and I remember Professor Jim Dickson pointing out this location on a BSS field meeting.

Birds-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis). This dull–coloured saprophytic orchid relies on mycorrhizal associates and is a woodland plant. I have seen it in a patch of woodland in a Dingwall housing estate, but it is not a usual urban species.

Early Marsh-orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata). This species of damp places has been recorded in Edinburgh, but is not usually seen in urban settings.

Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) and Heath Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) have also been recorded on a single occasion in the BSS Urban flora Project.


Allan, B. Wood P. and Clarke S. (1993). Wild Orchids of Scotland. Edinburgh HMSO.

Dickson J. H. (1991) Wild Plants of Glasgow. Aberdeen University Press

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