Red helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra)

Red helleborine flower
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Red helleborine fact file

Red helleborine description

GenusCephalanthera (1)

This critically endangered orchid produces up to 12 attractive pink or purplish-pink flowers on a long spike (2). In profile, the flowers are similar in appearance to spiky tulips (4). One stem is usually produced, which may have a purple tint (3) and a downy appearance (1); the leaves are dark green in colour and are very long and thin (2).

Height: 40-60 cm (2)

Red helleborine biology

This orchid is a long-lived perennial, the first leaves are not produced until about six years after germination, and flowering does not occur until the plant is ten years of age (3). Flowers occur in June and July and do not produce nectar, instead they are believed to mimic the colours of certain bees to attract them, the bees then pollinate the flowers as they transport pollen from one flower to another (3).


Red helleborine range

In the UK, red helleborine is known from single sites in Hampshire, Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire. It was formerly recorded reliably in a number of other sites in Gloucestershire, and there have been records from Somerset, Sussex and Kent, but the reliability of these reports is not known (3). It also occurs throughout much of Europe, where it is vulnerable (3).

You can view distribution information for this species at the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

Red helleborine habitat

Inhabits deciduous woodlands, typically dominated by beech (3). It lives on free-draining slopes with calcareous soils and a short, patchy ground flora (3).


Red helleborine status

Classified as Critically Endangered in Great Britain and fully protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (3).


Red helleborine threats

Unsuitable habitat management and neglect can lead to problems of shading; predation by slugs may also be a problem at some sites (3).


Red helleborine conservation

Management undertaken so far includes scrub control, leaf litter removal, the use of slug pellets, and the removal of some trees to increase the amount of light reaching the ground (3). Hand pollination has been used to try to increase the amount of seed set, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is researching the germination and propagation of this species in an attempt to establish ex-situ populations from which plants can be taken for reintroductions (3).

There may be further information about this species available via the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

Find out more

For more information on the work on orchid propagation see The Sainsbury Orchid Conservation Project at:



Information authenticated by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew:



Containing free calcium carbonate, chalky.
A plant that sheds its leaves at the end of the growing season.
Measures to conserve a species or habitat that occur outside of the natural range of the species. E.g. in zoos or botanical gardens.
Plants that live for at least three seasons; after an initial period they produce flowers once a year.


  1. Press, B. and Gibbons, B. (1993) Photographic Field Guide. Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe. New Holland Ltd., London.
  2. Grey-Wilson, C. (1994) Eyewitness Handbooks: Wild Flowers of Britain and Northwest Europe. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  3. Wigginton, M.J. (1999) British Red Data Books 1; Vascular Plants. 3rd Edition. JNCC, Peterborough.
  4. Fisher, J. (1987) Wild Flowers in Danger. H. F. and G. Witherby, Ltd., London.

Image credit

Red helleborine flower  
Red helleborine flower

© Hans Christoph Kappel /

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