A saprophytic herb usually growing in deep leaf-litter in Fagus woods on chalk, with little or no associated ground flora. It is also occasionally recorded from Quercus woodland. The underground rhizomes have considerable longevity but the stems are short-lived and may not be produced annually. Although its flowers are pollinated by bees, seed is rarely produced. Lowland.
E. aphyllum has appeared only sporadically since 1970 and, although there have been rumours of sightings, it has not been reliably recorded in Britain since 1986. The site at which it was last seen is now a commercial forest planted with conifers.
Eurasian Boreal-montane element.
Count of 10km squares in Great Britain: 8
Count of 10km squares in Ireland: 0
Count of 10km squares in the Channel Isles: 0
RDB Species Accounts
Epipogium aphyllum Sw. (Orchidaceae)
Ghost orchid, Tegeirian y Cysgod
Status in Britain: CRITICALLY ENDANGERED. WCA Schedule 8.
Status in Europe: Not threatened.
This is undoubtedly Britain's rarest orchid. It has not been seen since 1986, and has appeared infrequently and in very small numbers over the past twenty years. Its appearances, albeit sporadic, have almost always been under beech trees (very occasionally under oak), usually in deep leaf-litter, with few, if any, associated species. Two other saprophytic species, Monotropa hypopitys and Neottia nidus-avis, have, however, occurred nearby. At the most recent Herefordshire site, it appeared under oak, in a wood now planted with Picea, Pinus and Tsuga and managed commercially.
The environmental conditions controlling the growth of flowering spikes are not known, though it has been suggested that emergence might be triggered by a long period of rain followed by warm weather. Flowers have been recorded between April and mid-October, each flowering spike normally bearing two. Because of the sporadic appearance of aerial parts at historic sites after long absences, it is presumed that the underground rhizome can be long-lived.
The species was first recorded in Britain in 1854 in Herefordshire. Subsequent records from that county were in 1892, 1910 and 1982, at the last date a single flower spike with two open flowers. There was also an unconfirmed record from Leominster, and it was seen between 1876 and 1878 at Ringwood Chase in Shropshire. In Oxfordshire, it was apparently regularly seen in one beechwood in the 1950s and 1960s, though the last record was in 1963. In recent years, it has been most regularly seen in Buckinghamshire (up to 1986), where it has occurred in three beechwoods. Apart from an exceptional colony of 24 spikes discovered in that county by R.A.Graham in 1953, in all sites numbers of spikes have been very few (usually 1-4 and exceptionally up to seven) in any year.
All sites in Herefordshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire where E. aphyllum has been seen recently are SSSIs. However, since so little is known about its ecological requirements, it is not easy to assess what particular conservation action is appropriate. Plants are very difficult to see against the brown background and are certainly vulnerable to inadvertent trampling. Plants have apparently been dug up (in 1978 and 1979) from a Buckinghamshire wood, though the underground rhizome may not have been destroyed. It is also attractive to slugs, and there are several reports of it being eaten off soon after its appearance. One site has been threatened by increased horse-riding, timber extraction and windthrow. However, the habitat of most of its historic and recent sites appears to remain suitable, and there seems no reason why it should not reappear at some sites.
On the continental mainland it occurs in both deciduous and coniferous woods. Its distribution ranges through northern and central Europe, extending southwards in mountain ranges to the Pyrenees, central Apennines, north-west Greece and the Crimea, and further eastwards to the Himalayas. It is legally protected in several European countries.
PLANTATT - Attributes of British and Irish plants. (.zip 1455KB) This dataset was compiled and published in 2004, and last updated in November 2008. Download includes an Excel spreadsheet of the attributes, and a PDF explaining the background and nomenclature. Note that the PDF version is the booklet as published, whereas the Excel spreadsheet incorporates subsequent corrections. A hardcopy can be purchased from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
Atlas text references
Atlas of north European vascular plants north of the Tropic of Cancer. 3 vols,
, Königstein, (1986)
Vergleichende Chorologie der zentraleuropäischen Flora. Volume 1. 2 vols,
, Jena, (1965)
British Red Data Books. 1. Vascular plants, edn 3,
, Peterborough, (1999)