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Burnt Orchid

(Neotinia ustulata)

A Euro-Siberian species, Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) is widely distributed through Western, Central and Eastern Europe, spreading as far east as the Caucasus, Urals and into the extreme west of Siberia. It is much rarer in the Mediterranean region, and in Greece only reaches the northern and western parts of the country.

Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) in Rodopi Mountains, Bulgaria

Favouring regions where summers are warm and humid, Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) flourishes in sunny open habitats, on short, lightly-grazed calcareous pastures and drier meadows, often with a shallow soil layer. It can also be found in light, open woodland. Largest populations are found on those pastures that have never been treated with artificial fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, and where there is only moderate competition from other plants.

Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) in Rodopi Mountains, Bulgaria

In many parts of Western and Central Europe, Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) is becoming rare and endangered. Indeed in Britain, the species has suffered one of the severest declines of all wild orchids during the last 50 years, and suffering an 80% decline in distribution, may be the most rapidly decreasing plant in Britain. The main cause of such a rapid decline is believed to be agricultural improvement, use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides and ploughing up of meadows and pastures, although climate change may also have been involved. However, in the Bulgarian mountains, as in many mountainous regions, Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) still seems to be thriving and populations can sometimes be abundant. It can be found growing as high as 2400 metres in the Carpathians and Alps, whilst in Bulgaria it can be found up to elevations of 2000 metres. During our own researches, we have found the species growing at altitudes between 855 and 1612 metres in the Western Rodopi Mountains.

Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) in Rodopi Mountains, Bulgaria

The flowering period for Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) is typically given as running from the beginning of May until end of June, but the exact timing is dependent on elevation. In the mountains of northern Greece, the species has been reported as flowering from April to July, with our own observations in Bulgarian part of the Rodopi Mountains being between 16 May and 9 August. In fact, in some populations, there appear to be two distinct variants of Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) , the early flowering form var. ustulata and the later flowering form var. aestivalis, which have been regarded as separate sub-species by some authors based on small morphological differences such as height of the plant. However, it is likely that the later-flowering plants grow taller because of necessity as the surrounding vegetation has generally grown up later in July and August.

Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) in Rodopi Mountains, Bulgaria

An individual inflorescence can bear up to 80 small flowers, with the dark blackish-purple hoods of the unopened flowers at the tip of the spike giving Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) its name, although occasionally one finds all white forms that are referred to as var. albiflora. The flowers of the two main early-flowering and late-flowering variants are said to have different scents, var. ustulata being sweater and more pleasant smelling than var. aestivalis, the latter being described as 'rather unpleasant'. This suggests, therefore, that they attract different pollinators, but little is known about them, although the tachinid fly Echinomyia magnicornis  has been mentioned as pollinating var. aestivalis and the beetle Leptura livida as a pollinator for var. ustulata. However, as well as being insect pollinated, it is possible that the plants can also reproduce vegetatively, although it seems that it rarely does.

Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) in the Rodopi Mountains, Bulgaria

It has been said that Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata) demonstrates a remarkable example of delayed development with the first years of the plant's life being focused on developing underground tubers, and the flowers only first appearing when the plant is thirteen to fourteen years old. However, dormancy in this species, without the plant forming any above-ground parts, typically lasts up to about three years, relative quick for an orchid, with the plant then flowering for between one to four years, before dying or returning to a vegetatively dormant state.


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