Dactylorhiza sambucina - Elder-flowered Orchid

Phylum: Magnoliophyta - Class: Liliopsida - Order: Orchidales - Family: Orchidaceae

Dactylorhiza sambucina - Elder-flowered Orchid

This orchid occurs in two colours, red and yellow. They frequently appear together, although the red flowers tend to bloom slightly earlier than the yellow ones.


A somewhat short and stumpy looking plant, this orchid grows to around 30cm in height. The 4 to 7 basal leaves are unspotted and pointed at their tips. The large flowers can be either reddish or yellow, and there are rare appearances of salmon pink intermediate forms; they are large and are carried on a lax inflorescence.

Elder-flowered Orchids in southern France

Above: Elder-flowered Orchids seen in the Aveyron region of southern France in early May

The common name refers to the flowers' slight scent, which resembles that of elder flowers.

Dactylorhiza sambucina, red form, southern France

Above: the reddish form of Dactylorhiza sambucina is almost as common as the yellow form in some sites, including this roadside verge near Les Rives, in southern France.


The Elder-flowered Orchid grows in Finland, Sweden and Norway and as far south as southern France. It also occurs in some central European countries including Bulgaria, Slovenia and Romania.

Dactylorhiza sambucina - yellow form

Above and below: This orchid has two colour forms, yelloow and red. Intermediates can occur but in most locations appear to be ratheruncommon.

Dactylorhiza sambucina - red form

Elder-flowered Orchids favour calcareous or sometimes slightly acid soils and grow in pastures, mountain meadows and grassland, often in great numbers.

Dactylorhiza sambucina - Elder-flowered Orchid on a grassy knoll, France


The specimens shown here were photographed near Murat, southern France, in early June.

Flowering times

Dactylorhiza sambucina flowers from April to the end of June. The red form flowers slightly earlier than the yellow form.


The genus name Dactylorhiza means 'finger-like roots', while the specific epithet sambucina is a reference to Sambucus nigra, the Elder tree. These orchids have a scent similar to that of flowers of the Elder tree.

Reference sources

The Plant List

Anne and Simon Harrap (2005) Orchids of Britain and Ireland; A&C Black

Pierre Delforge (2005) Orchids of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; A&C Black

Den Nordiska Floran (1992) Bo Mossberg, Stefan Ericsson and Lennart Stenberg; Wahlstrom & Widstrand

Flowers in Slovenia (1990) Luka Pintar, Tone Wraber

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