Once a very common plant the Early Purple orchid is still found throughout the British Isles but is declining due to modern farming practices and urban sprawl. It has been seen on Bepton Down near the cattle trough at the top end of the Access Land site where it blooms in April.
It is a tolerant plant in that it that it is able to grow on a wide variety of soils and does particularly well on calcareous grasslands, often associated with cowslips, such as that of Bepton Down. It will also be found on sandy soils, woodland, coppice, pastures, roadside verges, hedgerows, and amongst bluebells. (For the adventurous among those reading this progress through the upper kissing gate and on into the bluebell woods beyond the South Downs Way on the south side of the South Downs and you will see them growing in deep shade amongst the sea of blue of Hyacinthoides non-scriptus.) The Early Purple does not mind the short turf of chalk downland but is equally at home amongst comparatively tall grasses found in richer meadows.
It is the earliest of our flowering native orchids. The glossy green basal leaves with large purple-black spots (which have led to the nickname “Adder Grass”) form a rosette appear from January onwards. They are produced from a root system consisting two rounded tubers. Hence its name as mascula signifies “masculine” as the tubers are testicle-like. It is a perennial plant but will fail to flower if its habitat is disturbed early in the season. It is also monocarpic as it cannot reproduce by underground tubers or vegetative means and relies entirely on seed production for future generations. Pollination is carried out by a wide variety of small insects resulting in a high percentage of seed set. Several years will elapse between germination and flower production. Should light be excluded plants will survive without flowering for a few years.
The fleshy green flower spike rises to a maximum height of 60cm. The flowers, between six to twenty, are arranged loosely over the top 4 to 15cm of the stem. Each one is 8-12mm long with a three-lobed lower lip. The middle lip is longer than the outer ones and has an indentation. Their colour ranges from a deep pink through to crimson. The main flowering period is between April and May although some have been found in flower in June.