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This genus is accepted, and its native range is Subarctic & Temp. Northern Hemisphere.

General Description

Small to large perennial herbs. Rootstock tuberous, tubers flat, palmately bifid or 5-fid, ovoid, oblong- cylindrical or cylindrical to napiform, often attenuated, rarely entire or shallowly bifid or trifid at apex, usually sessile. Stem erect or flexuose, solid or ± hollow, glabrous, leafy. Leaves basal, rosulate and/ or cauline (most commonly cauline), often cucullate at apex, spotted purple, or unspotted. Inflorescence usually densely many-flowered; floral bracts leafy, rather fleshy, often exceeding the flowers. Flowers rose-purple, purplish violet, yellow, yellowish green, greenish brown or rarely white. Sepals glabrous. Dorsal sepal and petals often connivent and forming a loose hood. Lateral sepals usually free, rarely connivent, spreading or deflexed. Labellum entire and concave or ± three-lobed and flat, rarely elongate, spurred, surface flat, convex, undulate or deflexed, minutely papillose above, often with a darker coloured patterning of lines, loops or dots, ecallose, or with three basal calli, porrect to deflexed, sometimes linear-oblong and hanging vertically, spur cylindrical or conical, ± equalling ovary, or extremely short and obtuse with the entrance compressed by two transverse constrictions. Column short, erect; middle lobe of rostellum usually situated between parallel anther loculi; pollinia two, clavate, parallel, converging above or diverging, with caudicles, each adherent to a viscidium placed in a simple bursicle or viscidia virtually naked, the bursicle rudimentary. Ovary cylindrical-fusiform, sessile, twisted, glabrous. (JW).


The terrestrial orchid genus, Dactylorhiza, grows on a variety of soil types including both alkaline to acidic soils, although individual species sometimes show distinct pH preferences. For example, D. fuchsii usually grows on basic, calcareous soils, as seen with ssp. hebridensis (Wilmott) R. M. Bateman & Denholm in the alkaline 'machair' habitat of the Scottish Hebridean Islands. The closely related D. maculata, however, invariably grows on acidic substrates at a pH as low as 5.5, especially ssp. ericetorum (Linton) P. F. Hunt & Summerh. growing in the acidic heather moorland and peatbogs of Scotand. Of the other European Dactylorhiza species, many are typically found on alkaline to neutral soils, including D. viridis, D. traunsteineri, and D. majalis (Rchb.) P. F. Hunt & Summerh. subsp. praetermissa (Druce) D. M. Moore & Soo, although the Madeiran endemic, D. foliosa (Verm.) Soo, prefers acidic soils. According to Delforge (1995), D. incarnata (L.) Soo subsp. cruenta (O. F. Muller) P. D. Sell grows on alkaline soils in the Alps but in quite acidic soils in Scandinavia (Summerhayes 1951; Lang 1989; Allan et al. 1993; Delforge 1995).
Dactylorhiza grows in full sun to semi-shade in a wide variety of often wet habitats, including grasslands and meadows, peatbogs, marshes and fens, dune slacks, scrubland, and woodland (Summerhayes 1951; Lang 1989; Delforge 1995). Some individual Dactylorhiza species are tolerant of different soil moisture and light conditions. Dactylorhiza maculata in the north of Britain, for example, commonly grows on dry heaths and moors with Erica (Ericaceae) and Molinia (Poaceae) species and in slightly wetter areas with sphagnum moss, Eriophorum (Cyperaceae) species, and Pinguicula (Lentibulariaceae) (Lang 1989). Also, D. fuchsii in southern England grows on both open chalk downs and limestone grassland and in the more shaded habitat of oak, ash, and beech woodlands where it forms taller plants with larger inflorescences (Summerhayes 1951). Across the range of the genus, Dactylorhiza grows at a wide variety of elevations, from sea level in coastal sand dunes to montane environments at elevations up to 2500 m (Davies et al. 1988; Delforge 1995).
Flowering of Dactylorhiza usually takes place in the summer months, between May and July, although there are some earlier flowering species, such as D. romana from the Mediterranean, which starts flowering in March (Delforge 1995). For most species the rosette of leaves remains green throughout the flowering period and in some cases may not wither until the end of October (Moller 1987, cited in Rasmussen 1995). Exceptions are some plants such as D. sambucina (L.) Soo and D. romana growing in the Mediterranean region in which a 'wintergreen' rosette is formed that prevents desiccation in the dry summer. With the 'summer-green' species, the overwin tering tuber develops over the spring and summer when the plant has fully expanded leaves. By the end of the year, the bud on the new tuber already contains the leaf and flower primordia for the next season (Harvais and Hadley 1967, cited in Rasmussen 1995). Replacement tubers of D. fuchsii in England can be seen at the base of the shoot in late November. Their growth rate increases in mid-April, reaching maximum size in September (Leeson et al. 1991).
Fruit-set levels ranging from an average of 10% (D. sambucina in Sweden and D. viridis in the Netherlands) to 39% (D. fuchsii in England) have been recorded from field populations of Dactylorhiza species (Neiland and Wilcock 1998; Willems and Melser 1998). Seed production varies from about 2000 to 5000 seeds per capsule (Salisbury 1942; Leeson et al. 1991; Nei land 1994; Willems and Mesler 1998) and, given an average of 17 capsules produced per D. maculata infloresence, Salisbury (1942) calculated that approximately 56 000 seeds could be produced per plant. Seeds are dispersed by the wind when the capsule dehisces at the end of the summer and germinate with a mycorrhizal fungus. The highest levels of seed germination are seen at a depth of 1-10 cm below ground level (van der Kinderen 1995). Germination of the seed takes place soon after dispersal (D. fuchsii; Leeson et al. 1991) or in the autumn when nutrition of the mycelium is optimal (D. majalis; Rasmussen and Rasmussen 1991). Several endophytes have been isolated from the roots of adult Dactylorhiza plants, which can stimulate seed germination or seedling growth in vitro (e.g. Tulasnella calospora is compatible with D. majalis and Thanatephorus cumumeris is compatible with D. purpurella (T. Stephenson & T. A. Stephenson) Soo; Hadley 1970; Rasmussen and Rasmussen 1991). Seeds may also be successfully germinated asymbiotically using nutrient media (e.g. Van Waes and Debergh 1986; Malmgren 1988) and even in water (Downie 1941; Vermeulen 1947). Following germination and formation of a protocorm, further seedling differentiation requires a period of cold temperatures, a factor which may restrict the geographic distribution at least of D. majalis (Rasmussen and Rasmussen 1991) and possibly other members of the genus.
Growth of the protocorm in many species may be quite rapid. For example, Leeson et al. (1991) observed that protocorms and small shoots were formed within three months after dispersing D. fuchsii seed in the field and under symbiotic cultural conditions. After 8-10 months in culture, small plants had developed that bad a single tuber, two leaves, and several roots. Rapid development from germination to shoot and tuber formation is also reported for D. sambucina (Fuchs and Ziegenspeck 1927), but Rasmussen (1995) suggested that longer length of up to four years for other members of the genus may be overestimates. It has been thought to take several more years for Dactylorhiza plants to reach maturity and produce an inflorescence, e.g. 4-5 years in D. fuchsii and D. incarnata (Wells 1981) or 16 years according to Ziegenspeck's estimates (cited in Rasmussen 1995) for D. majalis and D. incarnata. But a number of other studies have shown that the length of time for the development from seed to flowering individual in Dactylorhiza species can be relatively short, e.g. 2-3 years in D. praetermissa (Vermeulen 1947), 2.5-3.5 years in D. majalis (Sipkes 1967, 1968, cited in Vanhecke 1991 ), three years in D. praetermissa (McKendrick 1995), and 24-27 months for a range of Dactylorhiza species (Moller 1987). In the short-lived species, Dactylorhiza viridis (half-life c. 1.5 years) plants are able to produce an inflorescence the first time they emerge above ground (Willems and Melser 1998). In other species with longer lifespans, flowering may be delayed until the plants reach a certain size. In D. praetermissa, for example, symbiotically propagated plants may produce leaf rosettes for several years before flowering takes place (McKendrick 1995). The probability of flowering has been shown to be related to leaf number in D. fuchsii, with plants having four or fewer leaves unlikely to flower and those with ten or more leaves more likely to flower (Leeson et al. 1991).
The frequency of flowering in popu!ations of Dactylorhiza can be quite high, although it is also variable. In Tamm's long-term demographic study in Sweden (1943-1990), the frequency of flowering of a population of D. sambucina varied from 0-86% (Tamm 1991), whereas in the study by Vanhecke et al. (1991) of D. praetermissa in Belgium flowering varied from 16%-69%, with about 50% of plants flowering in most years. Similarly, the mean flowering of a population of D. viridis in the Netherlands was also 50% (Willems and Melser 1998). The variation in flowering frequency may be partially explained by climatic variables such as precipitation (Tamm 1991), whereby summer drought negatively affects the following year's flowering (lnghe and Tamm 1988), but, at least in D. sambucina, there is also a tendency for flowering plants to remain vegetative the next year (lnghe and Tamm 1988). Dormancy occurs rarely in D. viridis and lasts only for one season when it does take place (Willems and Melser 1998) but presumably can occur more frequently in long-lived members of the genus. Some Dactylorhiza species are notably long-lived (e.g. D. sabucina, Tamm 1948; D. fuchsii, Summerhayes 1951) and can form clumps of plants due to vegetative multiplication of the tubers. Perennation by means of tubers has been used to explain the persistence of some Dactylorhiza populations where recruitment from seed has been low and irregular (e.g. populations of D. sambucina and D. incarnata in Sweden; Tamm 1991). In D. viridis, however, vegetative propagation is insignificant, and instead population persistence depends on regular recruitment from seed (Summerhayes 1951; Willems and Melser 1998). Where recruitment in Dactylorhiza is high, large populations of several thousand plants can form (Vanhecke 1991) with diverse age structures (Willems and Melser 1998). High seed input can also allow Dactylorhiza species to re-invade sites from which they have disappeared (e .g. D. praetermissa lost from coastal sites near Zeebrugge in Belgium due to flooding; Vanhecke 1991) or to colonize new habitats (such as D. praetermissa and D. purpurella colonizing artificial calcareous substrates left by industrial activity near Manchester in England; Adcock et al. 1983). Absence of seed recruitment eventually leads to population decline (Tamm 1991) with rare species being particularly threatened by absence of fruitset, such as D. lapponica (Laest. ex Rchb.f.) Soo (Neiland and Wilcock 1993, 1998).
Among the members of the genus are a number of species that are either rare and/or declining. The relatively common, widespread species, D. viridis, has declined from 55 known populations in the Netherlands before 1950 to just two known sites today (Willems and Melser 1998), and the scarce D. traunsteineri has decreasing numbers of populations throughout its European range. Dactylorhiza foliosa has a restricted distribution (on Madeira) and is collected for horticulture (Delforge, cited in IUCN Orchid Specialist Group 1996). Habitat change caused by changes in agricultural practices, land drainage, or soil fertilization is a major threat to the continued survival of many Dactylorhiza populations. For example, alterations in light levels caused by the invasion of trees and other tall plants into old herb-rich meadows in Scandinavia, in which traditional hay-making practices have ceased, has caused a decline in shade-intolerant species such as D. sambucina in these habitats (Norderhaug et al. 1997). Drainage of nutrient-rich mires for forestry threatens wetland species such as D. incarnata (Kuitenen and Kuitenen 1994). Fertilizers are frequently used to 'improve' grasslands in which Dactylorhiza species occur; but these have been shown to have negative effects on the growth of D. majalis and D. fuchsii (Dijk and Olff 1994; McKendrick 1996) and to increase competition with co-occuring plants. Conservation of threatened Dactylorhiza populations can be achieved by careful management of sites (such as mowing, selective grazing, and reducing fertilizer applications) to maintain optimum environmental conditions and allow for adequate recruitment of seeds to replenish the population (Willems and Melser 1998). (RN).


About 50 often poorly defined species occurring mostly in boreal, temperate, and less frequently, Mediterranean areas, from Iceland, northern Scandinavia and North Africa east to the Himalayas and Japan, as well as Madeira in the west to Siberia in the east and North America only in the Aleutian Islands. (JW).



Dacylorhiza plants are increasingly grown as garden or pot plants in Europe. Some of the hybrids are particularly vigorous. (PC).

Native to:

Afghanistan, Alaska, Albania, Alberta, Aleutian Is., Algeria, Altay, Amur, Austria, Baltic States, Belarus, Belgium, British Columbia, Bulgaria, Buryatiya, Central European Rus, China North-Central, China South-Central, China Southeast, Chita, Colorado, Connecticut, Corse, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, East Aegean Is., East European Russia, East Himalaya, Finland, France, Føroyar, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Inner Mongolia, Iowa, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Irkutsk, Italy, Japan, Kamchatka, Kazakhstan, Khabarovsk, Kirgizstan, Korea, Krasnoyarsk, Kriti, Krym, Kuril Is., Lebanon-Syria, Madeira, Magadan, Maine, Manchuria, Manitoba, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mongolia, Montana, Morocco, Nebraska, Nepal, Netherlands, New Brunswick, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Newfoundland, North Carolina, North Caucasus, North Dakota, North European Russi, Northwest European R, Northwest Territorie, Norway, Nova Scotia, Ohio, Ontario, Pakistan, Palestine, Pennsylvania, Poland, Portugal, Primorye, Prince Edward I., Qinghai, Québec, Rhode I., Romania, Sakhalin, Sardegna, Saskatchewan, Sicilia, South Dakota, South European Russi, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tadzhikistan, Taiwan, Tennessee, Tibet, Transcaucasus, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkey-in-Europe, Turkmenistan, Tuva, Ukraine, Utah, Uzbekistan, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Himalaya, West Siberia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Xinjiang, Yakutskiya, Yugoslavia, Yukon

Dactylorhiza Neck. ex Nevski appears in other Kew resources:

Date Reference Identified As Barcode Type Status
Ireland 21653.000
Verdcourt, B. [4647], France 31801.000
Verdcourt, B. [4574A], France 31804.000
Sandwith, N.Y. [4351a], Spain 455.000
Ryan, P.J. 20728.000
Meikle, R.D., Ireland 456.000
Hall, P.M. [VIIa], United Kingdom 304.000
Gilmour, J.S.L., United Kingdom 457.000
Webster, M.M., United Kingdom 20725.000
Ferreira, R.E.C. [6], United Kingdom 21652.000
Jermy, A.C. [837], Denmark 23059.000
Jermy, A.C. [804], Netherlands 23060.000
Smith, A.R. [53], France K000970099
Newbould, P.S. [25], Ireland 454.000
Collins, P., Switzerland 34649.000
Collins, P., Switzerland 34650.000
Barneby, T.P., France 31589.000
Barneby, T.P., France 31590.000
Barneby, T.P., Sweden 33606.000
Fay [664] 70393.000
Italy K000364184
Italy K000364183
Kotschy [73.35b], Turkey K000364206
Jacquin [s.n.], Austria K000364187
Lang, A.F. [s.n.], Hungary K000364188
Prescot, J. [18] K000364190
Calvert [94] K000364189
Mill, J.S. [s.n.], Switzerland K000364224
Carling [s.n.], Sweden K000364185
McCallum Webster, M. [8], United Kingdom × Dactyloglossum 1310.000
Heslop Harrison, J.W., United Kingdom × Dactyloglossum 5876.000

First published in Trudy Bot. Inst. Akad. Nauk S.S.S.R., Ser. 1, Fl. Sist. Vyssh. Rast. 4: 332 (1937)

Accepted by

  • Bateman, R.M. & Rudall, P.J. (2018). Clarified relationship between Dactylorhiza viridis and Dactylorhiza iberica renders obsolete the former genus Coeloglossum (Orchidaceae: Orchidinae) Kew Bulletin 73(4): 1-17.
  • Govaerts, R. (2003). World Checklist of Monocotyledons Database in ACCESS: 1-71827. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Pridgeon, A.M., Cribb, P.J., Chase, M.C. & Rasmussen, F.N. (2001). Orchidoideae (Part 1) Genera Orchidacearum 2: 1-416. Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford.

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