• life history;
  • long-term dynamics;
  • principal component analysis;
  • reproductive effort;
  • terrestrial orchids

The flowering pattern of plant species, including orchid species, may fluctuate irregularly. Several explanations are given in the literature to explain that pattern, including: costs associated with reproduction, herbivory effects, intrinsically triggered unpredictable variation of the system, and external conditions (i.e. weather). The influence of age is discussed, but is difficult to determine because relevant long-term field observations are generally absent in the literature. The influence of age, size, reproductive effort and climatic conditions on flowering variability of Himantoglossum hircinum are examined using data collected in a long-term project (1976–2001) in Germany. PCA and multiple regression analysis were used to analyse variability in flowering pattern over the years as a function of size and weather variability. We studied future size after flowering to quantify costs of reproduction. Flowering probability was strongly determined by plant size, while there was no significant influence of age class on flowering probability of the population. Costs associated with reproduction resulted in a decrease in plant size, causing reduced flowering probability of the plants in the following year. The weather explained about 50% of the yearly variation in the proportion of large plants and thus had an indirect, strong influence on the flowering percentage. We conclude that variability in flowering is caused mainly by the variability of weather conditions in the previous and current year, whereby reproductive effort causes further variability in flowering at the individual and, consequently, the population levels. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 151, 511–526.