Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Pseudorchis albida – small-white orchid

Pseudorchis albida

Pseudorchis albida (L.) A. & D.Loeve, (L.) E.Meyer, (L.) R.Br., (L.)
Family: Orchidaceae

Small white orchid (Pseudorchis albida), also known as the white mountain orchid, is a rare species found in dry rough pasture in upland or coastal areas. It is a small plant, rarely over six inches, and bears small white flowers in a fairly tight spike from mid-June. Very widespread across North America; Europe from Ireland to the Balkans, and as far north as Scandinavia.

In brief

  • Recorded from upland areas across Northern Ireland
  • Widespread in the Province, but lost from half of its former known sites
  • Lost entirely from its County Down sites
  • Flowers in June and July.

Species description
A perennial species with small tuberous roots, rarely more than 15cm tall and rather inconspicuous; found on well-drained pastures, mostly upland but descending to lower altitudes (at sea level in some parts of Scotland). The flowers are produced in a tight spike and are small and white, with a sweet scent and carry nectar in spurs which attract a wide variety of insects.

Life cycle
The plant is a perennial with underground tubers; aerial parts are annual and new tubers are produced each year. Seeds are tiny, typical of those of orchids. After seed germination, the young plants must form an association with a special fungus (mycorrhiza) in order to grow and develop.

Similar species
There are no similar species with which this could be confused.

How to see this species
This is an inconspicuous plant, especially when growing as an isolated individual. There are a few well-documented sites where the plant appears regularly, but it is best to seek guidance from an experienced field botanist who knows the sites personally.

Current status
There has been a loss of about half of all its recorded sites since about 1930, and it has been totally lost from its two County Down sites. However, some new sites were located in recent decades, and part of the problem of assessing the decline of this orchid is the ease with which it can be overlooked.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • This species is scarce and has declined in terms of the number of sites across the whole of the British Isles in the past century.

In Northern Ireland this loss amounts to approximately half of all sites. It has also declined in Scandinavia and other parts of its European range.

Threats/Causes of decline
The principlal causes of decline have probably been habitat destruction caused by agricultural improvement and overgrazing.

Conservation of this species

Current action

  • The plant is listed as a protected species under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife Order (NI) 1985
  • Many of the sites are monitored on an ad hoc basis by field botanists.

Proposed objectives/actions

  • The status of small white orchid will be surveyed and monitored and appropriate conservation action undertaken if required.

What you can do
You can assist by helping to monitor the health and size of populations. Any sites additional to those currently known would be of great interest. All records should be reported to either the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) or to CEDaR, National Museums Northern Ireland, 153 Bangor Road, Cultra, Holywood, Co. Down, BT18 0EU. Tel: 028 9039 5256, email: [at]

Further information

British and Irish distribution (BSBI Maps Scheme web site)

Flora of Northern Ireland

County Antrim Scarce, Rare and Extinct Vascular Plant Register by Stan Beesley, 2006 edited by Julia Nunn and Paul Hackney

Hackney, P. (1992). Stewart & Corry’s Flora of the North-East of Ireland, 3rd edn. Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast.

Reinhammar, L.-G., Olsson, E.G.A., Sørmeland, E. (2002). Conservation biology of an endangered grassland plant species, Pseudorchis albida, with some references to the closely related alpine P. straminea (Orchidaceae). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 139: 47–66.

Text written by:
Paul Hackney