The Greater Butterfly orchid is present in fairly good numbers on the lower slope of the Access Land on Bepton Down. Walking across the Down from the lower kissing gate to the solitary mature beech tree and then on to the overgrown gate on the western fence line one should come across some of these orchids at the right time of year.
Bepton Down is lucky to have this orchid as it is classified as Near Threatened. This is reason enough to promote, protect and maintain the few remaining chalk grassland areas and other habitats which are essential for it to thrive.
This is a very distinctive orchid associated with undisturbed hay meadows, pastures, downland, scrub, open woodland, usually on well-drained calcareous soils. Bepton Down provides an ideal habitat. Due to the loss of over 95% of the British Isles’ traditional hay meadows this orchid has suffered a sharp decline. Its continued survival will depend on the maintenance of traditional habitat management.
It is an elegant orchid reaching a height of 50cm. The pair of large, elliptic, blunt, green spotless basal leaves. The upper stem leaves appear bract-like.
The flowers appear from May onwards and the Greater Butterfly orchid will flower well into July. Each stem bears a number of greenish white flowers. They exude a vanilla like fragrance at night. Each flower comprises two spreading tepals (parts that cannot easily be divided into sepals and petals) a long, narrow lip, a long spur curved downwards and forwards and, crucially, pollen sacs that form an inverted ‘v’. Pollinators include the Silver-Y moth and the Elephant and Small Elephant Hawk-moths. Seed will set in 7–90% of capsules. It is also a long-lived tuberous perennial.