A winter-green, short-lived perennial tuberous herb of ancient, species-rich, heavily grazed grassland on chalk and Purbeck limestone. It can, however, tolerate taller grassland, and has also been found colonising disturbed ground in limestone quarries, old spoil heaps and by tracks. Lowland.
O. sphegodes declined severely before 1930, becoming extinct in twelve vice-counties. Most losses were due to ploughing of grassland and changes in grazing regimes, to which it is particularly vulnerable. Its distribution is now stable, and new sites are occasionally found.
Light (Ellenberg): 8
Moisture (Ellenberg): 4
Reaction (Ellenberg): 9
Nitrogen (Ellenberg): 3
Salt Tolerance (Ellenberg): 0
January Mean Temperature (Celsius): 4
July Mean Temperature (Celsius): 16.3
Annual Precipitation (mm): 729
Count of 10km squares in Great Britain: 62
Count of 10km squares in Ireland: 0
Count of 10km squares in the Channel Isles: 1
Atlas Change Index: -0.11
External Species Accounts
Scarce Atlas Account
Ophrys sphegodes Miller (Orchidaceae)
Early spider orchid, Tegeirian-corryn Cynnar
Status in Britain: LOWER RISK - Near Threatened. WCA Schedule 8.
Status in Europe: Not threatened.
O. sphegodes is a plant of ancient, species-rich grassland on chalk and Purbeck limestone. Its preferred habitat is short turf, where it grows with a wide range of associates including Asperula cynanchica, Bromopsis erecta, Festuca ovina, Gentianella amarella, Hippocrepis comosa, Koeleria macrantha, Lotus corniculatus, Origanum vulgare, Polygala vulgaris, Sanguisorba minor, Thesium humifusum and Thymus polytrichus. It can survive in taller swards, even in Brachypodium pinnatum-dominated grassland, and can colonise disturbed ground, being found, for example, in limestone quarries, in turf developing on old spoil heaps, and by tracks.
This species is perennial, although the above-ground parts are analogous to a winter annual. Rosettes emerge above ground in autumn and are fully grown by October. They overwinter and produce flower spikes early in the year (generally April in Dorset, and May in Sussex and Kent), and senesce soon after, particularly if no seed is produced. Some pollination is assumed to be by Hymenoptera, but neither Summerhayes (1951) nor Lang (1989) name pollinating insects, and self-pollination is likely to be much more common. A long-term demographic study has shown that over 70% of plants flower in the first year of emergence, and this proportion increases with age until the fourth year, when almost all the non-dormant plants flower (Hutchings 1987b). Individual plants show irregular patterns of emergence, and it is likely that no more than 50% of a population is above ground during the flowering period. Few individual plants flower for more than three successive years (though may rarely live for ten), and those which have not appeared for three years may be assumed to be dead (Hutchings 1987a).
This species has always been local and, with the exception of one site in North Wales, confined to southern England. Formerly, it was found in Cornwall, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Oxfordshire and Denbighshire, but has declined sharply in the past fifty years and no longer occurs in these counties. It is now very largely restricted to Dorset, East Sussex and Kent, with most populations at or near the coast, but there are isolated populations in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and West Suffolk. The largest are in Dorset, where most are on coastal grasslands between St Aldhelm's Head and Durlston. Numbers vary, but more than 15,000 plants may flower there in the best years, representing perhaps two-thirds of the British population. Other significant populations of a few thousand plants occupy similar habitats on the South and North Downs. By contrast, only a single plant appears at the West Suffolk site.
Grazing management seems to be the key factor for its survival. A long-term study of a population in Sussex showed that winter grazing by cattle caused a rapid loss of plants, with deaths exceeding recruitment every year. However, sheep-grazing throughout the year, except for the three months while plants flowered and set seed, reversed this trend, and the population more than recovered its original status (Waite & Hutchings 1991). In Dorset, the re-introduction of grazing has helped at some sites (D.Pearman, pers. comm.). Hutchings (1987a) found that no measures of population performance or recruitment showed convincing correlation with any climatic variable. Most populations are in SSSIs, and thus have a degree of protection against ploughing and other adverse agricultural practices. It is possible that local trampling and picking might be minor threats.
O. sphegodes has its stronghold in southern and central Europe. It ranges from Iberia eastwards to Bulgaria and Greece, including most of the Mediterranean islands, thence to southern Russia, Turkey and northern Iran. It reaches its northern limit in England, Belgium and the Netherlands, and is threatened in several countries.
A. Horsfall and M. J. Wigginton
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
1991. Wild orchids of Dorset. .
1965. Vergleichende Chorologie der zentraleuropäischen Flora. Volume 1. 2 vols. .
1991. The orchids of Suffolk. .
1998. The phenology of Ophrys sphegodes (the early spider orchid): what annual censuses can miss. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 126:75-81. .
1999. British Red Data Books. 1. Vascular plants, edn 3.