Gymnadenia rubra - Red Vanilla Orchid

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

Gymnadenia rubra

A note about Vanilla Orchids

The two Vanilla Orchids featured on this website, Gymnadenia rhellicani and Gymnadenia rubra, are members of a group of closely related orchids sometimes categorised together as the Gymnadenia nigra group. Molecular study shows that they are closely related to the Fragrant-orchids, such as Gymnadenia conopsea which occur throughout a vast range of countries in Europe including the UK. While some similar-looking orchids can be differentiated because they are cross-pollinated by different species of insects, the Vanilla Orchids present a particular problem because they grow in such extreme and inhospitable habitats that insects are not always present. Ongoing molecular study may solve some of the problems of accurate identification of these orchids and the true extent of their territories.

Gymnadenia rubra in northern Italy


Like its very close relative the Black Vanilla Orchid Gymnadenia rhellicani, the Red Vanilla Orchid Gymnadenia rubra grows in the mid-European alpine zone.

Gymnadenia rubra grows uo to 30cm in height and has between 7 and 12 leaves at the base of the stem and several further bract-like leaves growing up the stem to just below the flower. The upper leaves and stem are marked with red.

The infloresence of Gymnadenia rubra is conical at first, becoming egg-shaped when all the flowers are open. The flowers are usually a bright ruby red, but paler pink specimens do also occur.


Due to confusion with other similar-looking species very little is known of the range of Gymnadenia rubra. We have seen it in Slovenia, and it probably occurs in Austria and Italy and into the Carpathian mountains.


Gymnadenia rubra grows in dry to slightly moist conditions in open sunny positions only on calcareous substrates. It can be found in short grassland and alpine meadows between 1,600-3,000 metres above sea level. It is less common than other Vanilla Orchids.

Flowering times

Gymnadenia rubra flowers from mid-June to the middle of August.


The genus name Gymnadenia means 'naked gland' and refers to the characteristics of the flower spur within which nectar is secreted. The specific epithet rubra means 'red'.

The specimens shown on this page were photographed in Italy in July.

Reference sources

The Plant List

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

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