Marsh-orchids of Canada: long-standing mysteries partially solved

Richard M. Bateman, Susan J. Meades, Ian Denholm, Daniel Tyteca, Mikael Hedrén

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Summary: Between 1959 and 1988, three populations of purple-flowered terrestrial orchids attributable to Dactylorhiza subgenus Dactylorhiza were discovered in Canada. The populations at Timmins, Ontario, and St John's, Newfoundland were strongly marked on both flowers and leaves, in contrast with the anthocyanin-deficient population at Tilt Cove, Newfoundland. All three populations have since experienced a wide range of taxonomic assignments; debates are also ongoing regarding their origin and most appropriate conservation status. Here, we address these questions by combining detailed in situ morphometric analyses based on 52 characters with allozyme profiles and data from nrITS, 15 plastid microsatellites and seven nuclear microsatellites. The allozyme data alone are sufficient to both confirm allopolyploidy and categorically refute past assignments of these populations to D. incarnata, D. maculata, D. fuchsii, D. majalis or D. purpurella. Several morphometric characters, nuclear microsatellites and nrITS all reliably distinguish each of the three study populations, whereas the two sampled subpopulations from St John's proved near-identical morphologically. In contrast, morphological variation within each of the three populations is strikingly low, particularly in characters other than those influenced by plant vigour. Similarly, compared with 14 European populations, the three Canadian populations proved genetically impoverished (two were near-invariant) and likely experienced recent, extreme genetic bottlenecks during establishment. The three populations differ substantially, both morphologically and molecularly, therefore probably representing independent immigration events. Although clearly attributable to D. praetermissa, all three populations deviate significantly in morphology and DNA data from comparable populations sampled across Europe, preventing identification of their precise geographic origins. Any attempt to determine their mode or origin — through natural long-distance transport, or accidental or deliberate introduction by humans – is challenged to explain why three lineages of a single European Marsh-orchid species, each in different ways atypical of that species, arrived independently in North America whereas no other European dactylorchid species has become established there.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)257-281
Number of pages25
JournalKew Bulletin
Issue number2
Early online date10 May 2024
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2024


  • microsatellites
  • taxonomy.
  • Internal Transcribed Spacer
  • allozymes
  • Europe
  • species circumscription
  • genetic bottleneck
  • in situ morphometrics
  • evolutionary mechanisms
  • Dactylorhiza
  • Canada
  • allopolyploidy


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