The Military Orchid gets its name from its flowers: the petals form a little helmet and the lower lip is lobed into what looks like little arms and legs, making the blossom resemble a solider with a helmet.
This orchid may grow to 60cm tall but on average it reaches only 25 to 45cm depending on surrounding vegetation. The long green stem is slightly edged. The rosette-like formation of leaves (around 4-6) at the base is elongated to elliptical, while the uppermost leaves sheath the stem. The upper bracts are oval to lanceolate, 8-14cm long and 2-4.5 cm wide, bright glossy green and unspotted. The inflorescence is first pyramid-shaped, then extending upwards with profusely blooming individual flowers arranged in a moderately compact way. The sepals and the side petals gather together to form a little helmet which is pale pink to white on the outside and of a darker hue on the inside. The lip (10-15mm long and 8-12mm wide) projects downward from the helmet and is separated into three parts, the two "arms" and then the midlobe, which is cleft into two "feet". The long narrow lateral lobes ("arms") protrude outwards and are bent slightly upwards. The lip is pinkish purple to purple, in the middle lighter or nearly white with reddish purple spots. The cylindrical spur (6-7mm long) points downwards, is around half as long as the ovary and is blunt at the end.
The range of Orchis militaris includes Central Europe, Eurasia and even southern Siberia and the Caucasus region. It is not native to southern Italy and southern Greece. In pristine meadows, semi-arid sward, forest glades and shrubbery, the Military Orchid grows in basic soils. The species thrives in full sun conditions, preferring moist soils which retain water in order for the plant to withstand summer drought periods, but which are not too wet. Thus chalky, loessial, loamy soils are ideal, yet it is not always necessary for the soil to be calcareous for the plant to thrive.
Endangerment and Conservation Status
In Austria, the Military Orchid is classified as vulnerable and in some regions as endangered. It is strictly protected by law in both Vienna and Austria.
Flowering Military Orchids may be spotted between April and the end of June. Yet often several or even many years – usually from 4-9 – may pass before the plant actually flowers, depending on the conditions of the site. Orchis militaris grow best in groups and emit a pleasant if somewhat weak scent.
The globular to oblong tubers of various orchid species (including the Military Orchid, the Green-winged Orchid, and the Bug orchis) have a certain similarity in form to the male gonads, or testicles. For this reason, the bulbs were used in antiquity as aphrodisiacs. The bulbs were worn on the body, or eaten, in the belief that they would bring heightened fertility. This also explains the proliferation of interesting common names for this orchid species, including even "souldiers cullions", meaning "soldiers' testicles" (John Gerard, The Herball of 1597).