The Lot Valley, southern France

List of wild orchids in the Lot and Cele Valleys...

Lot Valley near Cajarc

For anyone interested in wildflowers, and wild orchids in particular, the Lot Valley and adjacent Cele Valley in France must feature high on the list of must-visit destinations. The valleys are situated in the Department of The Lot, southern France, between the beautiful old towns of Cahors and Figeac. Many other picturesque and ancient villages lie beside the Lot and Cele rivers as they pass through an outstanding landscape of meadows, old pastures, woods and cliffs. The combination of rustic French architecture, scenic beauty and wonderfully diverse wildlife makes this area a difficult place to beat when choosing a holiday destination in France.

Apart from the wildflowers the area is renowned for its prolific birdlife, butterflies and other insects; it is truly a naturalist’s paradise. The limestone bedrock lying beneath the soil is one of the reasons for the diversity of flora, but add the balmy spring weather found so far south in Europe and the fact that traditional rather than intensive agricultural methods are used, in this small area of France at least, and you have the perfect conditions for wildflowers to flourish.

Military orchid

Our first visit to the Lot Valley had been long awaited and took place rather later in May than we would have hoped for – the first two weeks would be ideal, but we did not arrive until the towards the end of the month. The weather had been unusually cool and rainy throughout the spring, and this worked in our favour: plants that would normally have gone to seed were still relatively easy to find; indeed, we found twelve orchid species on our campsite on the first day, and this included the only Lady Orchid (Orchis purpurea) that we found during the week - had we been a couple of weeks earlier they would have been plentiful.

We stayed at the peaceful and pretty campsite called Camping Ruisseau du Treil (near Cajarc) now run by Jenny and Nigel Young. The campsite is ideally positioned for visiting many of the villages in the area as well for walking through the lovely surrounding countryside. Part of the site consists of unimproved grassland that has been managed for the wildflowers for at least 35 years which explains the wealth of wild orchids and other lovely flowers which can be found throughout the site. The conditions there are also ideal for butterflies, moths and birds. Telephone:00 33 (0)565 312 339 Email link...


Military orchid - Orchis militaris

Even without a guide it is not difficult to find many of the wildflowers, including orchid species for which the area is famous; but, in order to get the very best out of our visit, we decided to arrange an afternoon of guided botanising. This was great fun and enabled us to find some of the more elusive species that we would certainly have missed otherwise.

Our guide was Monica Rowland, a thoroughly un-stuffy botanist who has lived in the area for over 10 years. We had a wonderful afternoon and visited the high causse (limestone) areas as well as meadows and woodland. During the afternoon we found Man Orchid (Aceras anthropophorum), Military Orchid (Orchis militaris), Woodcock orchid (Ophrys scolopax), Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera), Red Helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra) and Sword-leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) to name just a few. Had we been slightly earlier, Monica said, it is relatively easy to find up to 20 different orchid species during a day of gentle walking and botanising. Email Monica...

Lady Orchid - Orchis purpurea
Lady Orchid Orchis purpurea blooms early in the Lot Valley

For those who prefer to go it alone the best time to visit is in the first half of May. If it has been a particularly warm spring you may miss some of the really early species such as Early Purple Orchid - Orchis mascula and Green-winged Orchid - Anacamptis morio. These two species are quickly followed by Lady Orchid - Orchis purpurea and Monkey Orchid - Orchis simia which reign supreme for the first two weeks in May and will be over by the time the other species really get going. The continuous warming of the days through May herald a real free-for-all in the orchid world, and it is almost impossible to avoid them anywhere in the area. A trip up to the high Causse above the rivers will yield wonders: Man Orchid - Orchis anthropophorum, Military Orchids - Orchis militaris, Fly Orchid - Ophrys insectifera, Greater Butterfly Orchid - Platanthera chlorantha and Lesser Butterfly Orchid - Platanthera bifolia can all be found there, and in the more wooded areas, Sword-leaved Helleborine - Cepalanthera longifolia, Red Helleborine - Cephalanthera rubra, Violet Limodore - Limodorum abortivum along with Bird's-nest Orchid - Neottia nidus-avis appear in good numbers. For the super-observant it is also possible to find Woodcock Orchid - Ophrys scolopax and Small-leaved Helleborine - Epipactis microphylla.

In 2012 a single specimen of Giant Orchid - Himantoglossum robertianum - was found in the area although this is not yet an official record. This year (2013) we found a specimen growing in a roadside ditch just outside Florac in the Cevennes which is to the east and slightly south of the Lot Valley. Far better known from the southern Mediterranean region, it appears that the Giant Orchid is moving north and is definitely worth looking out for in places where you would not normally expect to find it.

The wealth of wildflowers in this region mean that it's also a great place to see butterflies, moths and a myriad of other insects. We have seen some excellent butterflies there including White Admiral, Swallowtail, Cleopatra, Provencal Fritillary, Wall Brown and Orange-tip.

If your main interest is birds you will not be disappointed: Green Woodpeckers are both seen and heard in springtime competing with the Cuckoos which arrive in late April. We also saw Red Kites and Buzzards flying over the rocky cliffs of the valleys in search of prey. The wooded areas in the valley are ideal for summer visiting birds who nest and raise their young there.

Find and Identify Wild Orchids in the Lot Valley

For more information on each of the species listed below click on the links from the scientific names.

Table compiled with kind assistance from Monica Rowland.

Anacamptis coriophora

Anacamptis coriophora - Bug Orchid

This chalk-loving species is one to look out for in unimproved meadows and pastures. It is tall and rather spindly sometimes, and its dull brick-red colour making it difficult to spot in the colourful flowery places where it grows. May or June are the best time to look for it. It is said to have an unpleasant smell 'like bugs', hence its common name, but I am too inexperienced in sniffing bugs to comment on the truth of the matter.

 

Anacamptis fragrans

Anacamptis coriophora subsp. fragrans - Fragrant Bug Orchid

Difficult to tell apart from Anacamptis coriophora (above) particularly where the two species occur together or in close proximity with consequent hybridisation. Nevertheless, as its name suggests, it is 'fragrant' and supposedly smells much more pleasant than the very similar Anacamptis coriphora.

Whether or not these two very similar orchids are the same or different species is still the subject of much debate.

anacamptis laxiflora

Anacamptis laxiflora - Lax-flowered Orchid

This orchid reminds me of an elongated and sparsely flowered Early Purple Orchid - Orchis mascula. It is much taller than Early Purple Orchid, growing to around 60cm in height. It also flowers much later - from May to the beginning of July. It tolerates both alkaline and slightly acidic soil conditions and is nearly always found in wet, marshy areas of grassland.

Orchis morio - Green-winged Orchid

Anacamptis morio - Green-winged Orchid

Increasingly threatened in the UK and other parts of northern Europe, this orchid still flourishes on the High Causse in the Lot Valley and carpets the ground in favoured spots from mid-to-late April and into May.

Anacamptis pyramidalis - Pyramidal Orchid

Anacamptis pyramidalis - Pyramidal Orchid

A common orchid in the Lot valley but very beautiful nonetheless. It is a lovely deep pink in colour and the flowerhead is distinctly pyramidal in shape when the flowers first start to open. Later they becomes much more egg-shaped which often fools people into thinking that they have found something other than the Pyramidal Orchid.

anacamptis pyramidalis var alba

Anacamptis pyramidalis var. alba - Pyramidal Orchid - white variant

As above but occasionally a pure white form will appear among the pink flowers.

Cephalanthera damasonium

Cephalanthera damasonium

This species can be difficult to distinguish from Cepalanthera longifolia and it grows in the same types of habitats, adding to the confusion. The Lot region of France has plenty of its preferred habitat of chalk-based beechwoods. It flowers from May and into June.

Sword-leaved Helleborine - Cephalanthera longifolia

Cephalanthera longifolia - Sword-leaved Helleborine

The list of orchids found in the Lot Valley truly is a litany of species which are now very rare in northern Europe and the UK, and this species is no exception. Like it's pink-coloured relative, Cepalanthera rubra, this is a woodland species and can be found in open woodland rides in late April and early May. Foret de Braunhie is a good woodland to look for this lovely orchid species.

Cephalanthera rubra - Red helleborine

Cephalanthera rubra - Red Helleborine

Another very rare and endangered species in the UK where I have only seen it locked in protective cages, this woodland species can still be found in the Lot Valley. It grows on the edges of woods and flowers quite early - from the end of April to the beginning of June - slightly later than Sword-leaved Helleborine. A good place to look is in the Foret de Braunhie.

Dactylorhiza elata - Robust Marsh Orhid

Dactylorhiza elata - Robust Marsh-orchid

Strictly not in the Lot Valley but very close by in the Cele Valley, this tall orchid with large flowers lives in very marshy ground. It flowers in May and the plants can reach a metre in height. Be prepared to get very wet feet if you find it and want to get close enough to take photographs!

Dactylorhiza fuchsii - Common Spotted-orchid

Dactylorhiza fuschsii - Common Spotted-orchid

Well known from many northern European countries this is a chalk-loving species of orchid which flowers from May and into June. Look out for it in unimproved grassland and meadows.

Dactylorhiza incarnata

Dactylorhiza incarnata - Early Marsh-orchid

This is an extremely variable orchid which occurs in a variety of colours from deep pink-to-purple to a very pale salmon pink. Both white and cream-coloured flowers appear from time to time. It is an early-flowering species and appears from the end of April onwards. In the Lot it grows in damp meadows, but in other parts of Europe it is a coastal species occuring in vast numbers in sand dune slacks and fens with alkaline flushes.

 

Dactylorhiza maculata

Dactylorhiza maculata - Heath Spotted-Orchid

Often confused with the Common Spotted-orchid, Heath Spotted-orchid is tolerant of a wider range of habitats than is Common Spotted-orchid - a true chalk-loving species. Heath Spotted-orchid is frequently found on slightly more acidic soils including peat bogs and marshy pastures. It flowers from the end of May and well into June.

 

Dactylorhiza viridis

Dactylorhiza viridis - Frog Orchid

The Frog Orchid is a rare species in the Lot region, but it is also very difficult to spot because of it's drab greenish-brown colour which becomes lost among surrounding vegetation. It is tolerant of a wide range of habitats from meadows, open woodland and fens. It flowers from May until well into July.

Epipactis atrorubens Dark Red Helleborine

Epipactis atrorubens - Dark Red Helleborine

This beautiful helleborine grows only in areas with high levels of chalk in the substrate. Still found in a few places in the British Isles, including the Burren in County Clare in southern Ireland as well as in North Wales on Great Orme and in Durham, this orchid also flowers in the Lot Valley. It is rare and flowers later than many of the other orchids, appearing in late June or early July. It grows out of crevices and in grassy patches in rocky limestone up in the High Causse.

Epipactis helleborine - Broad-leaved Helleborine

Epipactis helleborine - Broad-leaved Helleborine

Broad-leaved Helleborine is still common in most European countries where it can be found in woodland particularly on the edge of paths where it benefits from partial sunlight. In the Lot Valley it flowers from the end of May and well into June

Epipactis microphylla - Small-leaved Helleborine

Epipactis microphylla - Small-leaved Helleborine

Insignificant is probably the most flattering word to describe this orchid, but it is interesting and not at all common. It grows on the edge of woodland and the drooping green flowers hardly open. Look for it towards the end of May on the edge of paths and tracks in Foret de Braunhie.

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Epipactis muelleri

This helleborine is difficult to identify with certainty, particularly where intermediates with Epipactis Helleborine (see above) occur. It grows on alkaline substrates but tolerates a range of habitats including dry and moist areas, full sun and mid-shade, scrub, open woodlands and some grasslands. It flowers from the end of May until August.

Gymnadenia conopsea

Gymnadenia conopsea - Chalk Fragrant Orchid

A classic chalk-loving orchid this lovely wildflower is easily distinguished from other pink-coloured orchids by its lovely scent. It grows in unimproved grasslands and flowers in late May and June.

Himantoglossum hircinum - Lizard Orchid

Himantoglossum hircinum - Lizard Orchid

The Lizard Orchid is a wonderful and relatively easy orchid to find in the Lot Valley where it is very often seen on roadside verges in large numbers. The amazing flowers, which really do resemble lizards, vary from greenish-cream to pink. It flowers from mid May to the beginning of June and can grow up to a metre in height.

Limodorum abortivum -Violet Limodore

Limodorum abortivum - Violet Limodore

This strange orchid grows in open woodland and on roadside verges close to trees. At first it resembles a bright purple asaparagus spear and may or may not fully open its flowers - hence its scientific name of abortivum. Look out for it in the Lot Valley from the end of April until the end of May.

Orchis ustulata - Burnt Orchid

Neotinea ustulata - Burnt Orchid

A slightly later-flowering species of orchid, the Burnt Orchid (sometimes referred to as Burnt-tip Orchid) grows in grassy areas of the Lot Valley and up on the High Causse. Look for it from the beginning-to-end-of May.

Neottia nidus-avis - Bird's-nest Orchid

Neottia nidus-avis - Bird's-nest Orchid

This is an interesting orchid which is entirely lacking in chlorophyll and therefore unable to photosynthesise its own food. It lives in Beech woodland and grows up through the leaf litter making it very difficult to spot. In Wales I have found it under Lime trees, but Beech woods are the best place to look. It establishes a mutually beneficial relationship with micorrhizal fungi from which it gains the necessary nutrients to germinate and grow. It comes into flower from mid May onwards.

Neottia ovata - Common Twayblade

Neottia ovata - Common Twayblade

Common by name and common by nature the Common Twayblade is a chalk-loving orchid which flowers freely in most of the unimproved grasslands of the Lot Valley. Look out for it from May onwards.

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Ophrys arachnitiformis ssp occidentalis

This orchid, like Ophrys araneola below, is one of the very confusing 'early- spider-orchid-like' species which are found in springtime throughout Europe from as far south as Greece and right up into France and the UK.

The one that occurs in the Lot region flowers very early, sometimes from February onwards, and it is found in short grassland and scrub.

Ophrys araneola

Ophrys araneola

This is another very early-flowering species of the early spider orchids. The distribution of Ophrys araneola is centred in France and it grows on alkaline soils in short-sward grasslands, on roadside verges and on the edges of woodland. Look out for this distinctive orchid with the yellow border around the distinctly lobed flower lip from February onwards.

Ophrys lutea

Ophrys lutea - Yellow Bee Orchid

This delightful orchid is very common in the southern Mediterranean-Atlantic region and is particularly numerous in the Algarve region of Portugal. It's distribution stretches right up into France as far as Charente. It grows on alkaline soils in grassland, scrub and abandoned farmland, in particular. It flowers from March (in the far south) and can be found until June in the more northerly parts of its range.

Ophrys apifera - Bee Orchid

Ophrys apifera - Bee Orchid

A favourite orchid for many people, the Bee Orchid is common in unimproved meadows and pastures in the Lot Valley. It flowers from mid May onwards and sometimes appears with white petals and sepals rather than the more usual pink ones.

Ophrys insectifera - Fly Orchid

Ophrys insectifera - Fly Orchid

This rare orchid is always a fascinating plant to see and is one of the ophrys species which excite so much interest in how flowers evolve in order to survive. The plants with flowers which most resemble the pollinating insect they seek to attract are the ones which go on to successfully reproduce. In some cases not only do the flowers look like the insects that pollinate them, they also smell like the females of the species which acts as a further attractant to the male insects.

Ophrys scolopax - Woodcock Orchid

Ophrys scolopax - Woodcock Orchid

This orchid was a surprising find for me in the Lot Valley and I really associate with countries further south in Europe. It grows on roadside verges and in grassland and is much harder to spot than the similar, but larger, Bee Orchid. Look out for it from May onwards.

Ophrys sphegodes - Early Spider Orchid

Ophrys sphegodes - Early Spider Orchid

This orchid appears very early in the year and is rather difficult to spot. It is very rare in the UK and grows on the limestone cliffs of Kent and Dorset where it is probably at the most northerly part of its territory being far more common in the southerly parts of Europe. Look out for it from early April on the High Causse of the Lot Valley.

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Ophrys sulcata

Ophrys sulcata is a species in a deeply confusing group of orchids when it comes to accurate identification. They are predominantly Mediterranean in their distribution, but Ophrys sulcata is found as far north as Brittany in France. It grows in alkaline substrates in abandoned farmland and in grasslands. Ophrys sulcata flowers from April until the end of May which is later than many other of the similar-looking species.

 

Orchis anthropophora - Man Orchid

Orchis anthropophora - Man Orchid

When I first took an interest in wild orchids I wondered if I would ever see this very rare (in Britain) species - and I still haven't seen it there! I have seen in it many southern European countries over the years and it is common in parts of the Lot Valley. It flowers from around mid May and you should look for it in unimproved grassland and up on the High Causse where it can be particularly numerous.

Orchis mascula - Early Purple Orchid

Orchis mascula - Early Purple Orchid

Usually the first of the wild orchids to appear in the Lot Valley, this species grows on grassy banks and in unimproved grassland. It flowers from mid-to-late April. The only species to flower earlier is the Early Spider Orchid - see below.

Orchis militaris - Military Orchid

Orchis militaris - Military Orchid

This orchid is another rare and endangered species in the UK and northern Europe but it still flowers freely on the roadside banks and in unimproved pastures of the Lot Valley. It flowers slightly later than other orchis species and appears from mid May in most years.

Orchis purpurea - Lady Orchid

Orchis purpurea - Lady Orchid

Surely one of the most beaufiful of the orchis species, the Lady Orchid is a threatened or endangered species in the UK and in many other countries of northern Europe. It flowers early in the Lot Valley - from the end of April until the end of May - appearing at the same time as the Early Purple Orchids and Green-winged Orchids. Look for it on grassy banks and in unimproved grassland and pastures.

Orchis simia - Monkey Orchid

Orchis simia - Monkey Orchid

The Monkey Orchid is a real speciality of the Lot Valley (but very rare and scattered in other parts of northern Europe and the UK) where it flowers from the end of April until the end of May. Look for it on roadside verges and in unimproved grassland and meadows.

Platanthera bifolia - Lesser Butterfly Orchid

Platanthera bifolia - Lesser Butterfly Orchid

Both Butterfly orchids appear in the Lot Valley and they are notoriously difficult to tell apart particularly as the 'lesser' and 'greater' epithets are no indication of the size of the plants or the flowers at all. It is the pollinia (structure in the flower that holds the pollen) of the flowers that give the game away: in the Lesser Butterfly Orchid they are parallel and in the Greater Butterfly Orchid they form an open upside down V shape. They are truly a woodland species in the Lot Valley and appear in sunny woodland rides throughout the area. They normally flower from early May onwards.

Platanthera chlorantha - Greater Butterfly Orchid

Platanthera chlorantha - Greater Butterfly Orchid

Both Butterfly orchids appear in the Lot Valley and they are notoriously difficult to tell apart particularly as the 'lesser' and 'greater' epithets are no indication of the size of the plants or the flowers at all! It is the pollinia (structure in the flower that holds the pollen) of the flowrs that give the game away: in the Lesser Butterfly Orchid they are parallel and in the Greater Butterfly Orchid they form an open upside down V shape. They are truly a woodland species in the Lot Valley and appear in sunny woodland rides throughout the area. they They normally flower from early May onwards.

Serapias lingua - Tongue Orchid

Serapias lingua - Tongue Orchid

The type species for the tongue orchids, Serapias lingua is by far the most attractive of them all. The flowers have a lovely pale pink lip with darker pink markings. If in doubt as to which of the species you have found, Serapias Lingua has a dark spot deep in the 'throat' of the flower. It appears in mid-to-late May in the Lot Valley and can pop up in fields which have been cultivated the previous year and then left to lie fallow. It is often found in company with Serapias vomeracea - see below.

Serapias vomeracea

Serapias vomeracea - Long-lipped Tongue Orchid/Ploughshare Orchid

Distinguishable from Serapias lingua (see above) by its much more orange colour and the long hairy lip of the flower which gives it its somewhat unattractive scientific name. It flowers from mid-May and appears in the same habitats and at the same time as the Serapias lingua.

 

Spiranthes spiralis

Spiranthes spiralis - Autumn Lady's-tresses

This autumn-flowering species is in steep decline throughout its distribution range due to loss of habitat and the use of agricultural chemicals. We have seen this orchid as far south as the Algarve region of Portugal and as far north as southern Sweden. Despite its colossal geographical range it is both very localised and rare wherever it occurs.

It grows on very short alkaline grassland, in sand dunes, in marshy ground in stream valleys (Algarve) and on abandoned farmland, and flowers from the end of July up to the end of November.

 

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