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Near here and to the West…

… lies a small shallow meandering lake with low lying shores of grasses, rushes, bogland and good farm land. Whatever the nature of the shore it is universally gently sloping into the water, sometimes almost flat. It’s strange the way we take the local for granted; it’s like we don’t have a regard for it as it forms the background to our lives. But this area contains an SAC, mainly for winter birds and, if you know the times and places, also holds very large numbers of extremely attractive orchids. Mainly, two varieties of Fragrant Orchids and several forms of Marsh Orchids appearing in order as they are early or late varieties. This page focuses on these orchids

Lough Gara:  west of Home!

Best site for Marsh and Fragrant orchids!

June 30, 2021


The Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza spp)

The images scattered around the top of this page represent Marsh Orchids ‘collected’ (photographically) from L. Gara in June 2021. There were 412 plants recorded from several large clumps mainly on the eastern side of the lake where large reed beds are not so prevalent. As can be seen there are a wide variety of factors at play in classifying these species. The only thing we are sure about is the variety! Identification can be based on: Colour of flower. Much care has been used to match actual colour (from mauve to red) to prevailing lighting conditions. Leaf variation… from long and thin to broad and sturdy but all strongly keeled. Flower density from being tall and packed to a more open see through structure with fewer florets. Labellum shape is important, some being long and thin (LEFT); others with a broad triangle with inward curving edges. (RIGHT)
Two tall broad leaved plants emerging slightly later than the earlier flowering plants at the start of this page. They both share the broad lip, the dense tangled bracts and the upper stem starting to turn purple (LEFT) (D. purpurella?)
A smaller plant with a much more open structure to the flower and tapering longish spurs. The dispersed (rather than dense) nature of the spike can be easily seen. The loose structure is more evident along with the general purple colouring of the upper stem and bracts.… This may be Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid
The photographs (BELOW) are mainly from 2019 (Pre-COVID!) but from a field adjacent to the Marsh Orchids photographed in 2021 at the top of this page. They are reported together because they both contribute to making this place excellent Orchid Country. They are not closely related and do not flower at the same time. There are three species of Fragrant Orchid but the majority of the images show the Marsh Fragrant Orchid, the biggest of the 3 species. Distinguishing features are as follows.: colour of flower. Not as variable as the Marsh Orchids but gentler variation through the red/purple spectrum with occasional totally white specimens. leaf variation… universally narrow and long up to 8 or 9 in number. flower density from being tall and packed to a more open see through structure with fewer florets. In a mature plant this will be very clear but opening flowers can be loose. Dense tall flowers identify the Marsh Fragrant Orchid Labellum and sepals are important with the width versus the depth of the floor helping identification. Sepals may be horizontal or drooping and labellum may have distinct lobes or more curved and variable shape.

Not rare but Beautiful:

The species we are talking about in this western limit of North Roscommon are not as rare or as vulnerable as some of the species found in other surrounding habitats. Both the Marsh and Fragrant Orchids can occur in large numbers if conditions are right and for both these groups the right conditions mean being dependent on adjacent water and on, or above, the waterline for most of the flowering season.. Marsh Orchid Varieties: The Marsh Orchids (ABOVE) are dominated by one particular species (Dactylorhiza purperella) but in preparing this page it has become evident that there are several variations (species) present. We are not experts in Marsh Orchids! Around L. Gara in 5 sites we have recorded 412 specimens and there were clearly some more we have not been able to reach. They all share a fondness for water — but not too much of it. The very tall specimens grow near, or in, water though they also prefer to be secure in raised tussocks should their feet get too wet! This means they have a limited tolerance for submergence during the flowering season. On one north facing shore either side of the Boyle River Bridge on the Island Road the same population has different distribution depending on the slope of the ground. If the ground lowers rapidly into the lake, the plants will be found in a linear pattern along the shore just like Spiranthes romanzoffiana in Mayo lakes — and for the very same reason! If the site is almost flat Marsh Orchids will be randomly distributed or else distributed along a water channel or a wetter part of marshy land. Fragrant Orchid Varieties: These occur very close to one of the main Marsh Orchid groups on the northern shore of L. Gara. Again, their occurrence is dominated by one species though the other two may also be present. Lough Gara is a marl lake but the marl and any onshore limestone is well buried, so the conditions for the Chalk Fragrant Orchid are less suitable. The main colony is in a small paddock between farmland and the lake shore and the marshy ground may limit the effect of an alkaline substrate under the soil. The dominant species  seems to be the Marsh Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia denisflora) a dense flowered tall growing form of Fragrant Orchid. The Heath Fragrant Orchid (G. borealis) is more northern and hilly and has not been seen at this site. For further information on Fragrant Orchids we have prepared a diagnostic guide HERE which may be of some help and also a Link to a very interesting report on many exotic Orchids, including one particularly clear Fragrant Orchid identification section full of revealing sketches. (Read MORE) This is a truly amazing site ranging from Biology to Physics to Space (and beyond).
Two views of Early Marsh Orchid (D. incarnata) showing strong ribbed bright green leaves, tall flowers with all the spots on the lip neatly confined inside a defined fence with pale pink unspotted borders around edge of labellum.
A collection of Orchids gathering around a wet spot and showing the variety of colour from scarlet to purple that a single form of Marsh Orchid may show!
A tall mature purplish narrow leaved specimen with serried ranking of florets, sharing the typical labellum shape of many plants observed at this site.… The narrow leaves suggest Pugsley’s but this flower-head is very tight and organised.

Lough Gara

A large shallow lake surrounded by flat farm land with many branches and indents and a smaller lake to the south which drains northwards into the part of the lake shown here. This in turn exits via the Boyle River to the nearby Lough Key and then on to merge with the Shannon and eventually discharge into the sea at Limerick. The areas that flood and the adjoining farms and small woodlands provide much sheltered marshy edges and undisturbed rough grass shores where many of our orchids grow. ZONE A: Many Hundreds of Marsh Orchids  grow in L. Gara depending on conditions. 200 in this area alone this year. ZONE B: A very small paddock between the high water lake level and farmland are also home to a dense growth of Fragrant Orchids.
The Fragrant Orchids (Gymnadenia densiflora) from Pink to Lavender!
Marsh Fragrant Orchid Gymnadenia densiflora Height alone is enough to identify this species. That and the densely packed spikes. It is also found in fens (such as Pollardstown) and lime rich wet fields.
The individual flower proportions are significant too. (See the sketches reproduced HERE in our Fragrant Orchid page.) Each floret can be viewed as wider than long as in the example above. But there is variation in the lips too.
The labellum shape does vary with the image (LEFT) showing 3 distinct lobes whereas the specimens above have a wide flower but with a pointed lip though a lobe is still present.
These are early stage flowers and may not seem so dense but as they mature the flower spike fills up. The cheeky horizontal ‘wings’ (lateral sepals) are held horizontally
Dubious specimens: Small or young plants were numerous at the time these photographs were taken. These two have certain different characteristics but we still categorise them as ‘young’ densiflora. The flower (LEFT) has wider florets, a slightly downward angled sepals, and a  ‘blousey’ labellum. However the appearance and position of lips and sepals varies with age, wind and how squashed the emerging flowers may be. For example, the specimen (RIGHT) is well spaced but shows florets with both a distinct ‘blocky’ tongue as well as rounded lower lip with lobe less distinct? The flower shapes change as they mature?

Marsh Fragrant Orchid

Gymnadenia densiflora


This is an example of this species in its full glory, growing up at the sheltered ditch area along the northern edge of the site. It is towering above all the vegetation and has a magnificent densely backed flowering head — a typical ‘densiflora’ standing proud against a cloudy sky. We didn’t measure its height but just recall that we had to hang back some distance to get the whole plant in frame!
RIGHT Could this be a Chalk Fragrant Orchid? Probably not! It does share some of the casual qualities of that group, like the sparse flowering on the lower part of the spike, and the very long and deeply curved spurs. However the lateral sepals do not hang downwards though they do in the specimen presented on the LEFT! Both of these plants have different lips with one being rounded and blousey with an unclear central lobe. The plant on the Right has a pointed lower edge to its labellum and also shows a tendency to rolling in its lateral sepals. This can be seen by enlarging image (RIGHT) and looking at sepals positioned edge on to the camera. There is a narrowing at the tip of the sepals and they do form a distinct semicircle at the end of each sepal?
RIGHT To finish…. just a very pleasing selection of Marsh Fragrant Orchids in one of their (and our) favourite places around Lough Gara. Of course, these are perfumed, and that is beautiful, but as to describing it and classifying the species on that basis, we will leave that to your imagination — and your nose!
Boyle River
“Ireland's Wild Orchids Through the rain stained glass, With a sickly purple hue, I can see early marsh orchid, And it makes me think of you. The gardener's son Is looking at it too, His sickly grey suit Makes me think of you. I was not born a bog child, I was only passing through, The Irish Lady's Tresses Made me think of you.” Perfectly observed by Marie-Chantal
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The Irish Lady’s Tresses referred to above is, of course, Spiranthes romanzoffiana found in western lakes of Mayo and next in Season to flower. (MORE)