Orchids in Sussex

Orchids in Sussex
Glenn with Musk Orchids

By Glenn Norris

Every year, I go to one of our nature reserves to look for and count orchids. Even better, these reserves are typically the ones with either a great diversity of orchid species or particular rarities. Every count is exciting for those reasons, but add the fact that some orchids can appear some years but be hidden away others (leading to some species not being seen on reserves for over 20 years) - gives these surveys a bit of extra spice.

Yesterday I went to Leythorne Meadow, one of our smallest reserves on the outskirts of Chichester, and home to one of the only patches of calcareous fen-meadow in Sussex. What it lacks in size however, it makes up for in botanical interest, epitomised by the seven species of orchid that have been recorded there. One of the regulars is the Marsh Fragrant-orchid, which is a Red-listed species and forms part of the purple-pink wave that swathes the reserve in June and July following the earlier flowering Southern Marsh Orchid.

Marsh Fragrant Orchids at Ditchling

Marsh Fragrant-orchid 

The Marsh Fragrant-orchid isn’t only found in wetland habitats, but on north-facing chalk slopes, of which the South Downs has plenty. One of the best is Ditchling Beacon and unsurprisingly the Marsh Fragrant-orchid is commonplace amongst considerably more widespread species. Ditchling Beacon is our most orchid-rich reserve with 10 species and the view of purple flower rockets covering the slopes is a sight to behold.

There are about 56 species of orchid native to the UK and 23 of those can be found across Sussex Wildlife Trust’s reserves. The most frequent species is, naturally, the Common Spotted-orchid. There are two species however, that are only found only rarely and they are the White Helleborine, found amongst the hazel coppice, and the diminutive, Nationally Scarce, Red Listed, Burnt Orchid on the south-facing chalk slopes.

If you’re interested in finding a Nationally Scarce orchid of your own though, now is the time to look for the delicate and unexpectedly difficult to find Musk Orchid. This Red Listed plant is in flower now and can be found on Ditchling Beacon and Malling Down, but searching for these is not for the faint of heart, requiring both physical and mental fortitude. Firstly they are small and difficult to see even amongst the short sward of chalk grassland; secondly, they are mostly found on the steepest slopes; and lastly, after thinking you’ve finally found one after a day of walking around with your nose to the ground, the thrill that begins to erupt out of you when you think you’ve found one will sink so suddenly to your boots that every step becomes more arduous when you realise it was just a bit of flowering Lady’s Bedstraw.

Glenn Norris Burnt Orchid (2)

Burnt Orchid

My predecessor Graeme Lyons treated me to this pleasant outing on my first day at the Trust almost a year ago, and despite the mental torture, it remains one of my favourite days when I found my first Musk Orchid (seconds before Graeme almost trod on it).


  • Katie:

    02 Jul 2020 11:06:00

    It’s not a Sussex Wildlife Trust site, but the Ladies Mile wildlife area in Brighton is packed with wild flowers at the moment – the only one I know for definite is dropwort (one of the prettiest wild flowers that I can recognise) but might be worth a look – the Hollingbury Hillfort has produced a few orchids in the past (a friend who knows what they’re talking about pointed them out to me)

  • Paul Daniel:

    02 Jul 2020 11:17:00

    Hello Glenn
    Thank you for these insights; very interesting. I had no idea just how many natural treasures exist ‘around the corner’ so to speak. You are encouraging me to get out more and extend my botanical knowledge beyond the daisy, buttercup and dandelion! Such fun. Butterflies next or have I missed that one? Thank you for your posts. Paul Daniel.

  • Ann Stewart:

    02 Jul 2020 11:37:00

    This year my landlord has allowed me to leave a largish patch of land behind my house to grow wild. I have got some lovely grasses. lots of clover, buttercups, daisies, self heal, black medicke and speedwell, butterflies, grasshoppers, hoverflies and…..two orchids!

  • Julian Martyr:

    02 Jul 2020 11:42:00

    We’ve seen many white helleborine orchids for the first time in Friston Forest this year. Two in our drive at West Dean. All finished now though

  • Mary:

    02 Jul 2020 12:07:00

    We have twayblades in our meadow, and in our wood. We had early purples on our lane this year. We have noticed good variation in the common spotted orchid this year — some quite pale. Overall there are marginally fewer common sported orchids this year, but the twayblades have thrived — perhaps they prefer a drier spring…?

  • Gordon King:

    02 Jul 2020 12:10:00

    Early Purple Orchid, a “carpet” of these gorgeous flowers seen lateMarch in a wood off the A22 Uckfield By Pass, (called locally as Fairhazel Wood. There were roughly 80 to a 100 among the also beautifull Bluebells.

  • Claire Saxby:

    02 Jul 2020 12:15:00

    I have left the grass to grow in my garden and was excited to find 2 Pyramidal orchids in flower in the front north-facing part of the garden. That same day saw one on Butts Brow. Will be keeping eyes peeled from now on when walking! Thank you for the info.

  • 02 Jul 2020 12:19:00

    During lockdown, I was responsible for checking the weekly checks on the Copsale Hall. Whilst there, I documented different things to put on our social media sites. One of the things I took a picture of was the orchids which pop up every year and I posted this on our Instagram page @copsalevillagehall on April 14. However, I am now concerned that this was not an orchid at all as it was over 3 months ago? The flowers have now gone and building work is taking place. The area where the ‘orchids’ grow has been cordoned off so the builders don’t walk on them. Have I got it wrong, is it a completely different flower?

  • Bronwen Griffiths:

    02 Jul 2020 12:41:00

    We have a lot of common spotted orchids in our un-mown grass in Northiam. (They are now faded). I also found an early purple in the grazed sheep field adjacent to our property earlier.

  • Karen Bailey:

    02 Jul 2020 12:53:00

    We have early purple, green winged and pyramid orchids. I am a sheep farmer, I don’t use fertilisers or sprays on my fields

  • Sylvia ellarby:

    02 Jul 2020 12:58:00

    There are orchids every May in the woods on Lancing Ring.
    Really pretty

  • pauline macadam:

    02 Jul 2020 13:06:00

    This is all very thrilling, but not possible for me to go on these expeditions looking for these gorgeous Orchids!! I am very disabled and have M E on top of it. I love to look through books of all the different flowers year round. Thanks for keeping in touch with me. xx

  • Julia Macfarlane:

    02 Jul 2020 13:10:00

    I cannot recommend highly enough Leif Bersweden’s book on finding all 50 orchids: “The Orchid Hunter”. Not only is it a thoroughly entertaining read but the 50 colour photos of the UK’s orchids are my reference guide for identification, when I am lucky enough to find and photograph one in my rambles.

  • Marilyn Jones:

    02 Jul 2020 13:42:00

    Despite the circumstances it has been a pleasure to take time and listen to the bird song, especially a cuckoo which I hadn’t heard for many years, and the wildlife which seem abundant this year.

  • Michael Noble:

    02 Jul 2020 13:54:00

    For those of you with access to Ditchling, Ditchling Down has a quite a few Pyramidal Orchids at present as well as the tail end of many Common Spotted Orchids

  • Su Novis:

    02 Jul 2020 14:01:00

    We have common had spotted orchids in the front lawn for 35 years, this year I did an inventory on the wild flowers in the garden so far it is 45 And counting!

  • Sara Clifford:

    02 Jul 2020 14:37:00

    I spotted a rare bee orchid last week near Plumpton – in the midst of the common spotted ones.. So exciting!

  • Michael Noble:

    02 Jul 2020 15:10:00

    For those of you with access to Ditchling, Ditchling Down has a quite a few Pyramidal Orchids at present as well as the tail end of many Common Spotted Orchids

  • Sam:

    02 Jul 2020 15:28:00

    There have been some beautiful purple marsh orchids during June in the wetland fields next to the stream leaving Fishbourne millpond. Unfortunately the cows have now been allowed to graze there so they are now gone ☹️

  • Anne-Marie Sapsted:

    02 Jul 2020 15:28:00

    We have helleborines popping up around our garden which had been left to go wild for five years or so. Don’t know if they would be classed as white ones though. I also garden for a lady in Sedlescombe who doesn’t cut her formal lawn until all the wild flowers have seeded at the end of June. The orchids there grow like weeds. I’m sure she’d be happy to show you.

  • Sally Walton:

    02 Jul 2020 16:36:00

    I have never seen this many orchids around the Hastings/Rye area. The Marsh Fragrant Orchids are abundant this year and I also saw a bee orchid when walking on the South Downs between Glynde and Lewes – my photograph was too blurry to use because I was way too excited!

  • mr m w littmoden:

    02 Jul 2020 16:56:00

    feel free to visit my verge on the b2116 just before Allington lane going east to Plumpton college . Great show of orchids this year and advice always sought .Mark

  • Chris Hookham:

    02 Jul 2020 17:16:00

    Great to read your article and all the comments. Like many others I’ve been letting parts of my lawn area grow “wild” until a late cut and this year have been rewarded with 15 bee orchids among the common spotted (quite varied in colour) and pyramidal ones. I suspect it was meadowland prior to 1926 when the house was built – isn’t nature wonderful!

  • Graham Tuppen:

    02 Jul 2020 20:18:00

    I found my first fly orchid near Bignor Hill in May, and there were 2 white helleborines near it. Then Mid May there were probably 100 white helleborines in the beech woods just west of The Chantry in Sullington.

  • Bren Hall:

    02 Jul 2020 22:33:00

    In the 1950s in Ringmer we used to see lots of the purple wild orchids in the fields and called the Ram’s Horns.

  • David Smith:

    03 Jul 2020 06:23:00

    While the family were out for a short walk with our Grandson yesterday on the road/track by the Holmbush Centre at Shoreham leading to the riding stables and onto the Downs, we noticed by the sides of the road/ track what we thought were many Pyramidal Orchids growing. We are not experts, but a friend who we sent a photo to confirmed that indeed they were.

  • 03 Jul 2020 08:32:00

    Hi Glenn,
    I really enjoyed your report on orchids counts this year and so glad to hear that so many wild orchids are still thriving in Sussex – we see a lot when travelling around and they really are some of our most beautiful and fascinating plants. It was also heart-warming to read the enthusiastic responses from local orchid lovers. We have an orchid nursery in Crawley Down and on our normal travels we visit orchid societies and groups of plant enthusiasts up and down the country – this year has been somewhat different with all the necessary show closures; however we have been encouraged by people saying they are spending more time finding out about local wildlife habitats both in Sussex and up and down the country – marvellous. If you ever have upcoming events that you might like to let our nursery visitors and members of orchid societies know about we would be happy to take display any flyers etc for you, once the ‘new normal ‘ for these type of events gets underway. Laurence is also happy to help out any of your readers if possible, that might have any questions about available commercial types. Please do let us know if we can help; I shall look forward to reading your further updates – fantastic. Best regards Heather

  • 04 Jul 2020 06:25:00

    We have had some Pyramidal Orchids in Broadwater and Worthing Cemetery the past 4 years. Only a few, but I guard them to prevent the council grass cutting contractors from strimming them. They are happy to work with on this and so far we have them then appear the next year. Lots of Pyramidal Orchids to be found up Lancing Ring and Highdown Hill in Worthing at the moment because they prefer the chalk downs habitat, but in the cemetery we have clay soil, which makes these Orchids even more precious..

  • 04 Jul 2020 07:46:00

    An excellent site for Musk Orchid is the Heyshott Escarpment reserve on the South Downs, managed by the Murray Downland Trust. Graeme Lyons in his 2018 survey found 261 spikes. Walk south from the village of Heyshott up the path known as Chalky and turn right into the reserve.

  • Christine Vigars:

    06 Jul 2020 08:44:00

    I am concerned about the lack of orchids on Mount Caburn. There is a large herd of cattle grazing and no wild flowers . I did not find any burnt tip orchids in Caburn bottom this year . Can you explain the Trusts grazing policy and does this take account of sites that used to have a good orchid growth ?

  • 07 Jul 2020 09:45:49

    @Christine Vigars: Mount Caburn and Caburn Bottom are managed by Natural England and so any queries about management should be directed to them. Earlier this year however volunteers surveyed Caburn Bottom and found a healthy population of Burnt Orchids, counting approximately 606 individuals.

    Sussex Wildlife Trust makes sure to leave orchid-rich sites free of grazing until after the flowering period, when cattle are sheep are brought on to remove the biomass that has developed during the summer.

  • Helga-Maria Goulton:

    11 Jul 2020 18:08:00

    Hi, I thought you should know that at the crossroads of the B2100 and the A256 at Mark Cross there is an area on both sides of the B2100 of masses of orchids, don’t know what variety. The area has just been cut completely, presumably by the Council, before the plants had a chance to flower. I think it should be investigated and the Council made aware. I am not sure whether the plants can survive?
    Thai Goulton

    East Sussex Highways runs a Wildlife Verge scheme and you can report this one for inclusion here: https://www.eastsussexhighways.com/report-a-problem/vegetation/wildlife-verges
  • Paul Lister:

    18 Jul 2020 20:08:00

    It is some years now since I did my orchid hunting in Sussex. In those days Wolstonbury Hill was one of the premier sites and I am left wondering if things have changed since I moved to Devon. In my time it was a fabulous site!

  • Peter Etheridge:

    06 Aug 2020 09:31:00

    Do you know of the large number of marsh and common spotted orchids in one area at Whitehouse Farm, Chichester? They are to be destroyed by building – I can get no one interested in them. The odd bee orchid is often among them. One year there were green winged orchids also.

  • Toby Mace:

    14 Dec 2020 19:09:00

    Every few years a type of orchid flowers on a small patch of grassland opposite my mother-in-law’s house on Upland Road near the golf course on the edge of Eastbourne.
    It’s rare enough to bring enthusiasts from far and wide to photograph these beautiful, bell-shaped little flowers.
    Does anyone know the name of the particular flower that grows there or have any photos of it?
    The land is under threat of development and I would love to find out if this species has protected status!

    Hi Toby. We can’t think of any orchids with bell-shaped flowers, but it’s unlikely that it’s legally protected as very few are, but it may have some other designation that would mean it would need to be taken account of in any development. If you could take a photo and send it in to us when it next emerges, that would be the best option. Glenn
  • Frances Baker:

    28 Apr 2021 16:55:00

    I know, as someone else mentioned last year, that Hollingbury Hill Fort is not one of your sites. However, when I went there last week, as I do every spring, to see the Early Purple Orchids in bloom, I was so disappointed to see that the area where they were had been drastically cut back and no wild flowers. This will affect the pollinators.

  • James Lee:

    16 Jun 2021 12:08:00

    A scrub area in Southwater adjacent to Blakesfarm Road was cleared last year in preparation for building. The pandemic restrictions brought development to a halt and now on the bare, uneven soil scores of Common Spotted Orchids are blooming. They will be destroyed when building restarts which seems a shame

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