The Burnt Orchid has the smallest flowers of all native orchis species. Its flowerhead blossoms from the bottom to the top. The flowers at the very top remain closed and are dark purple to blackish. Their "burnt" appearance is the likely origin of the scientific name: "ustulare" means "to scorch" in Latin. Both of their common names, Burnt Orchid and Dark-winged orchis, also refer to the hue of these blossoms.
Like all species of the Orchis genus, the Burnt Orchid has two globular to egg-shaped tubers under the ground. The flower spike is cylindrical, with fewer blossoms towards the bottom but densely compact towards the top. The petals lean together to form a hood; they are dark red on the outside and as buds, nearly black. Lip is white with small red dots; it is three-lobed and has spreading linear lateral lobes. The midlobe is oblong and cleft in the front. Subspecies Orchis ustulata subsp. ustulata has a rosette of foliage leaves, reaches a height of only 10-25cm (max. 35) and flowers from May to June. Its paired sepals are not turned outwards; its blossoms smell like honey. A second subspecies, Orchis ustulata subsp. aestivalis has paired sepals with the tip turned outwards. This subspecies has an insignificant basal leaf rosette and grows much higher, from 30-50cm (max. 80). Its flowers smell like lemons and appear only in July and August.
This orchid species may be found across Europe: north to southern Sweden, and south to the Mediterranean, where it becomes rarer. Along the temperate zone, the plant may be found in Central Siberia as well as in the Caucasus region. Subspecies Orchis ustulata subsp. ustulata occurs across Austria but most frequently in the Pannonian Plain in the east. It prefers chalky, semi-arid sward and dry yet seasonally-flooded dry meadows. The subspecies Orchis ustulata subsp. aestivalis is not found in Vorarlberg, Tyrol and Salzburg. It colonizes similar habitats as its relative, yet only occurs in the Pannonian Plain in shadier sites with rich soil.
Endangerment and Conservation Status
The Burnt Orchid is divided into two subspecies in Austria. Both are classified as vulnerable on the Red List. Both orchis types are fully protected species in Vienna and Lower Austria.
Most herbaceous plants are able to reproduce sexually through seeds but also by vegetative means such as runners. Among orchids, there are few European species which can propagate by vegetative means using underground creeping stems. Bulb-building Orchis ustulata do not have the option of using this method. Each year, a sole new bulb with over-wintering buds is produced to accompany the somewhat wrinkly old bulb. Thus the enlargement of the stand is only possible by way of seeds. Orchids produce thousands of tiny seeds which have only a slim chance of survival due to lack of stored energy. They can only grow into new orchids in symbiosis with an appropriate partner, a fungus. All the pollen of an orchid's flower is stuck together in one single, large package. Because these packages are highly prized, their transfer to the stigma of other flowers must be made as safe and certain as possible. This necessity has led to orchids specialising in certain pollinating insects. When an insect visits the flower, the pollen package is handed over by affixing it to the insect's body. The insect cannot rid itself of the package unless it approaches the stigma of another flower. Energy is only invested in the development of seeds after successful pollination. One single flower produces thousands of tiny seeds which are dispersed by wind.
The flowers of the Burnt Orchid smell sweet like honey.