ORCHIDS are an extremely diverse and successful family of plants. Incredibly there are 28,000 different species worldwide with the vast majority inhabiting the hot rainforests of Asia, Africa and South America.

Despite their association with all things tropical and exotic, we do have about 50 wild orchid species in Britain with 15 of these growing in Ryedale.

Not surprisingly, high summer is the best time to see most orchids, but there are two on show this month – one relatively common and the other one extremely rare.

The early purple orchid’s name is a bit of a giveaway in that the flowers are purple and they appear above ground early in the year.

While we are on the subject of names, the family name “orchid” comes from the Greek word orchis meaning testicle, a reference to the two oval-shaped, underground tubers that most orchids possess.

A similarity in appearance to male genitalia has led to their use as aphrodisiacs over millennia and a number of risque Anglo-Saxon monikers for the early purple orchid like bull bags and bollockwort.

Fortunately, for our sensitivities sake, most of the early purple orchid’s country names refer to its elegant spike of magenta flowers, which emerge from a rosette of black-spotted leaves - red butchers, kite’s legs, adder’s meat and long purples are just four of many.

Shakespeare refers to them in Hamlet… “Of crow-flowers, daisies, nettles and long purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name, but which cold maids do dead men’s fingers call.” He was obviously aware of its ruder nicknames.

I saw my first early purples of the year in Howsham Woods during the last week of April – blazing firebrands among the magnificent carpets of bluebells that cover the woodland floor there.

Although they do sometimes bloom in meadows and hedgerows, ancient woodland is their favoured habitat. They particularly like woods that have been coppiced in the past; coppicing is a traditional timber production technique where trees, usually hazel, are cut at ground level, which doesn’t kill the tree, but stimulates a vigorous growth of multiple stems the following year.

Regular coppicing allows lots of sunlight to reach the forest floor, resulting in a riot of plant diversity. Common beneficiaries are primroses, violets, bluebells, wood anemones and, of course, early purple orchids.

Many conservation organisations like the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Woodland Trust recognise the benefits of coppicing and, along with some of the more enlightened country estates, have employed the services of Ryedale’s only full-time coppicer, Geoff Norton.

Geoff and his partner Angela run the company Yorkshire Hurdles, based right next to Howsham Wood in Westow, and produce lots of practical and beautiful items from the timber that they harvest.

Orchis mascula is the scientific name for the early purple orchid and it’s close relative, Orchis morio, also grows in Ryedale. Going by the English name of green-winged orchid, this plant is nowhere near as common as its cousin. Once widespread across Ryedale, it has suffered dramatically from the effects of herbicides and fertilisers used in modern farming.

A book published in 1953 called The Natural History of the Scarborough District described green-winged orchids as, “common in meadows,” but this plant is now only to be found in five fields near the Hole of Horcum.

If you do go orchid hunting this month you will be pleased to know that no special identification skills are required as these are the only two species in flower.

They are both quite similar in appearance but if you find one and you’re nowhere near the Hole of Horcum you can rest assured it’s almost certainly an orchid of the early purple variety.