Giant orchids found growing wild in UK for first time

Giant orchids that can reach a metre tall have officially been found growing wild in the UK for the first time, having become established hundreds of miles north of their native range in the Mediterranean.

The “stately” plants were discovered on a grassy slope near Didcot in Oxfordshire, with the exact location being kept a secret.


The sweet-smelling orchid has many flowers on its stem, which are purplish-red in colour, and the leaves are broad and glossy.

Typically found in southern and central Europe, the giant orchid (Himantoglossum robertianum) range is expanding north as the climate warms, with records showing the plant is able to survive in northern France and the Netherlands.

It is not believed these plants arrived naturally, but rather by someone scattering seeds about 15 years ago, a practice discouraged by ecologists as it can result in invasive species. It is believed this is also how the species reached the Netherlands. In both cases, they managed to establish and are now reproducing themselves.

Locals say the plants flowered years ago and then vanished, but no official report was ever made. This year – perhaps benefiting from the sunny spring – there are nine flowering plants and 10 non-flowering plants, reaching a maximum of 30cm tall.

“It’s a very exciting find,” said Prof Ian Denholm, from the University of Hertfordshire, who is one of the UK’s two national orchid referees and visited the site to verify the find. “There was a [giant orchid] seen about 15 years ago, it wasn’t widely reported and it came as news to me in fact … it was never really made public, and the plant itself presumably didn’t last very long,” said Denholm.

Orchid flowers consist of three outer sepals and three inner petals, and in many species, one of the petals is highly modified as a lip to attract pollinators and give them a place to land. The giant orchid lip has lobes that fancifully resemble arms and legs, says Denholm. “It’s a very stately orchid. It lives up to its name of giant orchid. It’s got quite a long and dense flower spike.”