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Wild orchids of Andalusia

Orchids are a very diverse botanical family, mainly represented in the tropics. Their presence in the European flora often goes unnoticed… and yet, their photogenic flowers provoke passions.

Most species bloom during the short period of spring, matching the beautiful season and the most pleasant time to discover the biodiversity of a region.

Small miracles of nature, these plants require specific environmental conditions (pH, humidity) and depend on mandatory collaborations with fungi (for microrrhizae), insects (for pollination) and herbivorous mammals (to maintain the environments open).

Orchids: little-known ‘divas’

Scattered plants here and there, most often in the best habitats, with somewhat a ‘capricious’ ecology.

‘Need of space’. Most species colonize recently opened environments, at least with patches of bare soil.

Their tiny seeds are devoid of food reserves and the success of germination depends on a ‘hazardous’ cooperation with a fungus potentially present in the soil.

They ‘need light‘, high luminosity habitats (open areas, meadows, edges of grassy paths), often dry but not too arid.

Plants with bulbs, which serve them as a reserve to get through the bad season (summer in Spain) when the stem and the leaves of the year have withered.

Their bulbs require stable conditions (not overturned farmland) but do not support competition with grasses that are too densely populated, or environments that are too enriched with nutrients by high-density livestock.

Orchids of Andalusia: Sombre bee (Ophrys fusca)

Mediterranean flowering plants

In Europe, the greatest orchid diversity is observed around the Mediterranean… where most species have a rather restricted area.

Andalusia is home to around sixty species (see footnote). The most emblematic species of this territory are Ibero-Maghrebian endemisms: Dyris bee orchid (Ophrys omegaifera dyris), Andalusian bee orchid (Ophrys atlantica), Green butterfly orchid (Platanthera algeriensis), Cazorla orchid (Orchis spitzelii cazorlensis), Moorish tongue orchid (Serapias strictiflora), Dark-red helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens subsp. parviflora) and Gennaria (Gennaria diphylla).

As a general rule (not exclusively, far from it), orchids are fond of limestone soils: Grazalema, coastal sierras of Málaga, Cazorla and Segura, limestone hillsides of Sierra Morena… high places for European orchidophilia which bring together all favorable conditions for dense orchid populations.

Naked man orchid (Orchis italica)

Mimicry and ‘sexual deception’

A few rare plants have pushed the co-evolution between flowering plants and pollinating insects to its climax (!).

A very remarkable and rare mechanism of ‘sexual deception‘ is observed mainly in the orchid family : in particular in the genus Ophrys, which is almost exclusive to the Mediterranean rim and entirely specialized in this strategy.

The orchid imitates an insect by its shape and especially by the emission of female sexual pheromones… inducing the males (solitary bees, small wasps) to mate with its flowers. Pollen grains adhere to the back of the male, which visits several flowers and thus ensures pollination.

Plants save the traditional production of nectar to attract insects… but become ultra-dependent on a very small number of pollinators.

Guide of wild orchids: Ophrys speculum

Frequent natural hybrids

Hybridization, i.e. the crossing between individuals of two different species, is a common phenomenon among orchids, particularly in the genera Ophrys, Orchis and Dactylorhiza…

In botanical nomenclature, hybrids are identified by the x mark and can either bear a dedicated name (similar to a species) or indicate the two parent species by separating them with the x mark. For example, opposite: Orchis x semi-sacatta (O. champagneuxii x O. collina). Photo: Enrique Calzado Rivillas.

The task of botanists is singularly complicated / made interesting by the existence of these hybrids which increase morphological variability in species that are already not very stable. It is not uncommon for ‘different’ individuals or small clonal populations to be interpreted, either as a new species or as more or less stable hybrids.

Hybridation in orchids. Hybrid. Orchis x semi-sacatta (O. champagneuxii x O. collina)

Guide to the Wild Orchids of Andalusia

Group of Ophrys… the bee orchids

Extravagant plants with unique shapes… whose label (large lower petal) imitates an insect by its shape and texture. The ‘sexual deception’ is so effective that the flower has ‘abandoned’ the nectar reward (absence of nectar tube).

Mirror of Venus orchid

(Ophrys speculum)

Ophrys speculum

Med. Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Bumble bee orchid

(Ophrys bombyliflora)

Ophrys bombyliflora

Med. Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Sawfly orchid

(Ophrys tenthredinifera)

Ophrys tenthredinifera

Med. Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Yellow bee orchid

(Ophrys lutea)

Ophrys lutea

Med. Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Dingy bee orchid

(Ophrys agg. fusca)

Ophrys fusca

Med. Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Dyris bee orchid

(Ophrys omegaifera dyris)

Ophrys dyris

Spain, Maghreb. Other subsp. Med. islands, Turkey

Andalusian bee orchid

(Ophrys atlantica)

Ophrys atlantica

Andalusia (Málaga), Maghreb

Bee orchid

(Ophrys apifera)

Ophrys apifera

Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Early spider orchid

(Ophrys sphegodes atrata)

Ophrys sphegodes

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Woodcock bee

(Ophrys scolopax)

Ophrys scolopax

Europe, Turkey, Mghb, Caucasus

Genera with few species

A small group of species quite different and easy to identify in the field. Note the Bird’s nest orchid, a non-chlorophyllian species (absence of leaves), parasitic and entirely dependent on its microrrhizae.

Violet limodore

(Limodorum abortivum)

Limodorum abortivum

Europe, Turkey, Mghb, Caucasus

Trabut’s limodore

(Limodorum trabutianum)

Limodorum trabutianum

Med. W. Europe, Mghb

Summer lady’s tresses

(Spiranthes aestivalis)

Spiranthes aestivalis

Occidental Europe, Maghreb

Autumn lady’s tresses

(Spiranthes spiralis)

Spiranthes spiralis

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Bird’s nest orchid

(Neottia nidus-avis)

Neottia nidus-avis

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Green butterfly orchid

(Platanthera algeriensis)

Platanthera algeriensis

Med. W. Europe, Mghb

Giant orchid

(Himantoglossum robertianum)

Himantoglossum robertianum

Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Lizard orchid

(Himantoglossum hircinum)

Himantoglossum hircinum
W. Europe, Mghb

Group of Orchis (Anacamptis, Gymnadenia and Neotinea)

A large group of often similar species whose genetics have recently upset understanding. The current situation is not very intuitive since in the current classification, species belonging to neighboring genera are sometimes more similar to each other than within their own genus (!).

Naked man orchid

(Orchis italica)

Orchis italica

Med. Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Monkey orchid

(Orchis simia)

Orchis simia

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus, Mghb

Lady orchid

(Orchis purpurea)

Orchis purpurea

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus, Mghb

Toothed orchid

(Neotinea tridentata conica)

Neotinea conica

Spain, Maghreb. Other subsp. Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Olbia orchid

(Orchis olbiensis)

Orchis olbiensis

Med. W. Europe, Mghb

Early purple orchid

(Orchis mascula subsp. mascula)

Orchis mascula

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus, Mghb

Lange’s orchid

(Orchis langei = D. mascula subsp. laxifloromis)

Orchis langei

Iberia, France, Mghb

Pink butterfly orchid

(Anacamptis papilionacea)

Orchis papilionacea

Med. Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Laxed-flowered orchid

(Anacamptis laxiflora)

Anacamptis laxiflora

Med. W. Europe, Turkey

Swamp orchid

(Anacamptis palustris)

Anacamptis palustris

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Orchis bouffon

(Anacamptis morio subsp. morio)

Anacamptis morio picta


Orchis de Champagneux

(Anacamptis morio subsp. champagneuxii)

Orchis champagneuxii

Iberia, France, Mghb

Bug orchid

(Anacamptis coriophora)

Orchis coriophora

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus, Mghb

Dense-flowered orchid

(Neotinea maculata)

Neotinea maculata

Med. Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Cazorla orchid

(Orchis spitzelii cazorlensis)

Orchis cazorlensis

Spain, Maghreb. Other subsp. Med. Europe, Turkey

Saccate-lipped orchid

(Anacamptis collina)

Orchis collina

Med. Europe, Turkey, Mghb

Pyramidal orchid

(Anacamptis pyramidalis)

Anacamptis pyramidalis

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus, Mghb

Burnt-tipped orchid

(Neotinea ustulata)

Neotinea ustulata

Europe, Caucasus

Fragant orchid

(Gymnadenia conopsea)

Gymnadenia conopsea

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Dactylorhiza group

Group resembling the Orchis. The two genera are most easily distinguished by tuber morphology, with fingered forms in Dactylorhiza (as the scientific name indicates). Genus of distinctly northern distribution, loving the coolness of wet meadows and riversides, and subservient to mountainous areas in the south of the Iberian Peninsula.

Early marsh-orchid

(Dactylorhiza incarnata)

Dactylorhiza incarnata

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Broad-leaved Marsh

(Dactylorhiza majalis subsp. sesquipedalis = D. elata)

Dactylorhiza majalis esquipedalis

Iberia, France, Mghb. Other subsp. : Europe.

Corsica orchid

(Dactylorhiza insularis)

Dactylorhiza insularis

Med. W. Europe, Mghb

Sulfurous orchid

(Dactylorhiza romana subsp. guimaraesii = D. sulphurea)

Dactylorhiza romana var guimaraesii. Dactylorhiza sulphurea

Spain, Mghb

Group of Serapias : tongue orchids

Very singular genus of orchids whose morphology and color of the label recall a language (!) particularly visible and attractive, at least for beetles and other visitors. The rest of the corolla forms a small tunnel which serves as a nocturnal shelter for insects, whose regular visits thus ensure pollination. An unusual strategy! Less known than in the Ophrys, certain species (Serapias lingua) have also developed fragrances typical of ‘sexual deception’.


(Serapias cordigera)

Serapias cordigera

Med. W. Europe, Mghb


(Serapias parviflora)

Serapias parviflora

Med. W. Europe, Mghb


(Serapias vomeracea)

Serapias vomeracea

Med. W. Europe, Mghb

Moorish tongue orchid

(Serapias strictiflora)

Serapias strictiflora

Spain, Mghb

Common tongue orchid

(Serapias lingua)

Serapias lingua

Med. W. Europe, Mghb

Green flowering species

A small group of remarkable species having abandoned the bright floral colorations to maximize the chlorophyllous parts. This adaptation has appeared several times during evolution and in different genera, a situation that only genetics has made it possible to identify recently.


(Neottia ovata)

Neottia ovata

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Man orchid

(Orchis anthropophora)

Orchis anthropophorum

W. Europe, Turkey, Caucasus


(Gennaria diphylla)

Gennaria diphylla

Med. W. Europe, Macaronesia, Maghreb

Cephalanthera and epipactis group : helleborines

Most often forest species unlike most orchids in Europe. Epipactis form a very complex group. Species previously cited in Andalusia, E. kleinii, E. cardina, E. lusitanica or E. fageticola were not retained by Kühn et al. (2019). Nevertheless, these species are recognized in Flora Iberica and specialists will be keen to study them.

Red helleborine

(Cephalanthera rubra)

Cephalanthera rubra

Europe, Turkey, Maghreb

Sword-leaved helleborine

(Cephalanthera longifolia)

Cephalanthera longifolia

Europe, Turkey, Mghb, Caucasus

White helleborine

(Cephalanthera damasonium)

Cephalanthera damasonium

Europe, Turkey, Maghreb

Marsh helleborine

(Epipactis palustris)

Epipactis palustris

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Iberian Dark-red 

(E. atrorubens subsp. parviflora)

Epipactis atrorubens


Small-leaved helleborine

(Epipactis microphylla)

Epipactis microphylla

Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Broad-leaved helleborine

(Epipactis helleborine)

Epipactis helleborine

Europe, Turkey, Mghb, Caucasus

Tremols’ helleborine

(E. helleborine subsp. tremolsii)

Epipactis tremolsii

Med. Europe, Turkey, Caucasus

Orchids of Andalusia… a never-to-be-satisfied list

The systematics and the nomenclature of European orchids are so complex that it is virtually impossible to find two works where the same species names coincide… We follow here the recent reference guide to European and Mediterranean orchids : Kuhn, Pedersen, Cribb (2019). Field Guide to the Orchids of Europe and the Mediterranean. Kew Royal Botanical Graden. A choice which favors recognizing a smaller number of species and subspecies than most specialized authors… and which, implacably, will not satisfy those keen on ‘fixing’ the variations observed in nature.

Let us indicate the main problems to be solved for the taxonomy of orchids: the existence of a great floral morphological variability in certain “species”; clonal populations that bias our perception of the morphology of a group of individuals that appear to be differentiated; the insoluble problem of how to interpret the existence of sympatric subspecies; the absence of genetic sequencing for many taxa (in particular local variations promoted to the rank of species); the possibility that each association of Ophrys with different pollinating insects induces micro-speciation.

For Andalusia, the taxa offering the most subject to debate are the aggregates of Ophrys fusca, Orchis morio and the genus Epipactis.