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Red Helleborine

Cephalanthera rubra

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Plant Profile

Flowering Months:
Orchidaceae (Orchid)
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
80 centimetres tall
Meadows, riverbanks, waterside, woodland.

Pink, 5 petals
Purplish-pink flowers, up to 5cm wide. The flowers have a whitish coloured, narrow, pointed, down-curved lip which does not open widely. Up to 20 flowers per shoot. Sometimes Red Helleborine goes for years without flowering. White flowers are rare. The flowers are darker in chalky soils. 2 stigmas. 1 stamen.
The fruit is a capsule which produces many dust-like seeds.
Dark green, narrow, lanceolate leaves. Purple tinged. The leaves are arranged alternately up the stem. Each stem contains between 2 and 8 leaves. Can be found growing in deciduous woodland, in particular Beech woodland. Very rare in Great Britain. Perennial.
Frequency (UK):
Rarely seen  

Other Information


Cephalanthera rubra, also known as the red helleborine, is a species of orchid that is native to Europe and Asia. It is a perennial herb that grows to a height of about 30–80 cm. The flowers are typically red or pink in color and bloom from June to August. The plant prefers damp, shady habitats such as woods, meadows, and river banks. It is considered endangered in some parts of Europe and is protected by law in some countries. C. rubra is also known for its medicinal properties, traditional use of which includes treatment of various gynecological disorders, and as a diuretic.


The Red Helleborine, or Cephalanthera rubra, is a stunning orchid that can be found in Europe and Asia. Its name comes from the Greek words "cephalos" meaning "head" and "anthera" meaning "anther", which refer to the position of the anther on the head of the flower.

This orchid is known for its striking appearance, with bright red or pinkish flowers that can grow up to 25 centimeters in height. The flowers themselves are arranged in a spike and can have up to 30 individual flowers. The Red Helleborine also has large, glossy leaves that can grow up to 12 centimeters long.

One of the unique features of the Red Helleborine is its pollination strategy. Unlike most orchids, which rely on insects to pollinate them, the Red Helleborine is self-pollinating. It achieves this by developing specialized structures in its flowers that allow it to transfer pollen from the male to the female parts of the flower without the need for an external pollinator.

Despite its striking appearance, the Red Helleborine is relatively rare and is considered to be a threatened species in many countries. Its decline is largely due to habitat loss and degradation, as well as overcollection by collectors and enthusiasts.

Conservation efforts for the Red Helleborine are focused on protecting its habitat and raising awareness about the importance of preserving this beautiful orchid. Some conservationists also work to cultivate the plant in botanical gardens and other protected areas to ensure its survival.

In addition to its aesthetic value, the Red Helleborine also has some medicinal properties. It has been traditionally used to treat a variety of ailments, including respiratory infections, fever, and digestive issues. However, it is important to note that the plant can be toxic if ingested in large quantities, so it should only be used under the guidance of a trained medical professional.

The Red Helleborine belongs to the Orchidaceae family, which is one of the largest families of flowering plants, with over 28,000 species. Orchids are known for their intricate and unique flowers, and they have a long history of cultural significance in many parts of the world.

In some cultures, orchids are believed to have medicinal properties, and they have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. They are also popular as ornamental plants, and many people enjoy growing orchids in their homes or gardens.

The Red Helleborine is particularly interesting because of its self-pollination strategy. This is a relatively rare trait among orchids, as most species rely on insects or other animals to pollinate them. Self-pollination can be an advantage in environments where pollinators are scarce, but it can also limit genetic diversity and make the plant more susceptible to disease.

Despite its self-pollination ability, the Red Helleborine is still dependent on a healthy ecosystem to survive. The plant relies on a specific group of soil fungi to provide it with nutrients and support its growth, and it is also a valuable food source for insects and other animals.

Protecting the Red Helleborine and its habitat is therefore important not only for its own survival, but also for the health of the entire ecosystem. Conservation efforts can also have broader benefits, such as preserving biodiversity and providing opportunities for scientific research and education.

In addition to its ecological and cultural significance, the Red Helleborine also has important scientific value. The plant and its close relatives have been the subject of many studies aimed at understanding the genetics and evolution of orchids.

One area of research has focused on the genetic mechanisms that allow the Red Helleborine to self-pollinate. Scientists are interested in understanding how these mechanisms evolved and how they might be influenced by environmental factors.

Other studies have looked at the role of soil fungi in supporting the growth and survival of the Red Helleborine. These fungi form a symbiotic relationship with the plant, providing it with nutrients and helping it to resist disease and other stresses. By studying these interactions, researchers hope to gain insights into the complex relationships between plants and fungi in natural ecosystems.

The Red Helleborine also has potential as a model organism for studying the genetics of orchids more broadly. Orchids are known for their complex and highly specialized flowers, which have evolved to attract specific pollinators and ensure successful reproduction. By studying the genetic basis of these traits in the Red Helleborine and other orchids, scientists can gain insights into the mechanisms of flower development and evolution.

Another interesting aspect of the Red Helleborine is its relationship with human culture. In many parts of Europe and Asia, this orchid has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. It was believed to have a range of medicinal properties, and was used to treat ailments such as fever, respiratory infections, and digestive issues.

In addition to its medicinal uses, the Red Helleborine has also been valued for its beauty and rarity. Collectors and enthusiasts have long sought out this orchid, leading to overcollection and habitat destruction in some areas.

Today, the Red Helleborine is protected by law in many countries, and efforts are underway to conserve the species and raise awareness about its ecological importance. These efforts include habitat restoration and protection, as well as public education and outreach.

Conservationists are also working to cultivate the Red Helleborine in botanical gardens and other protected areas, both to ensure its survival and to provide opportunities for scientific research and education. By studying this orchid and its interactions with the environment, researchers can gain insights into the complex relationships between plants, fungi, and other organisms in natural ecosystems.

In conclusion, the Red Helleborine is a unique and important plant with a rich cultural and scientific history. It faces many threats, including habitat loss and overcollection, but with conservation efforts and public support, we can help to ensure its survival and protect the wider ecosystem. By valuing and protecting the Red Helleborine and other threatened species, we can work towards a more sustainable and biodiverse future for our planet.

Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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