Friday, 4 July 2014

The Wildflowers of Inchnadamph

Davie Black
Conservation Co-ordinator, Plantlife Scotland

We in the Plantlife Scotland team like to give members something of a interesting challenge occasionally: this year was an exploration to discover the special collection of wildflowers that grow on the limestone rocks on the eastern fringe of Assynt, in the far north-west of Scotland.

15 suitably kitted-out explorers joined myself and Andy and Roz Summers from The Highland Council ranger Service to trek up the path toward The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph.
A lovely speckling of yellow, purple and blue in amongst the green grass and brown heather greeted us on a misty and slightly midgy morning as we slowly worked our way along the trail. As ever with botanical excursion we didn’t progress very fast as cries of “what’s this one?” diverted us into the sward to check some small but beautifully coloured wild plant.

Milkwort (Polygara vulgaris) (right) was an interesting one for me as in Scotland I am used to finding the small, indigo flowers of Heath Milkwort lurking in the heather.  Here however, due to the richness of the minerals in the limestone rocks it turned out to be Common Milkwort for a change, and had us rooting around the base of the stem to see if the leaves were opposite or alternate – one of the more obvious diagnostic features.

Viviparous Fescue (Fetusca vivipara) caused some exclamations on the curiousness of nature – a grass that doesn’t produce flowers and set seed, but the flowerhead composed of small, living plantlets, that drop off and, hopefully, take root.

A detour to a small waterfall brought lunch and a lovely sprinkling of Yellow Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) (left, © Laurie Campbell) over the rocks nearby.  Here it was that we came across the Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) (left) a plant with a flower of 8 white petals and a cluster of bonny yellow stamens in the centre.  This transforms itself in seed to produce the most amazing long silky hairs, that take a twist to themselves, looking mostly like a delicate shaving brush, twirling itself up out of the flower stalk, while nestling in its bed of crinkly dark green leaves.

The specialty of the place was saved until after lunch and a criss-crossing of the boulder-strewn bed of a burn.  What caught our eye first was the bright curving blades of Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis), clear, glossy green, with slightly pointed tips to the leaflets.  Since it grows on calcareous rocks it is something of a rarity to see in Scotland.

But that wasn’t what we were looking for. We were after the Scottish Asphodel (Tofieldia pusilla) (right, © Hedwig Storch under Creative Commons BY-SA licence). This wildflower is tiny, so its hard to find but don't let its size put you off. A hidden treasure, it usually grows up on mountain slopes and is rarely found on the coast. But because of its unique environment, Inchnadamph is one of the few locations this miniature beauty grows.

One sharp-eyed plant hunter said quietly to me “what’s that beside the Holly Fern?” and yes, we had been focused on the bright green fern and hadn’t noticed the small delicate spike of white flowers that was the Scottish Asphodel, nestling in a crack in the rock where some soil had accumulated.

Back to the lochside, the botanising at an end, and we each of us learned something that we had never known before about the wild plants that we share the land with. We didn’t walk too far, but we scrambled off the track, up over rocky knowes, and hopped cautiously over burns. We peered closely at the form and structure of the wild plants we found; from the tiny perforations in the leaf of St John’s Wort, to the shape of the lips of the Twayblade flowerhead.  Pleasantly tired we knew we had had a good day out and certainly left me wanting to roam the hills again.

Its special places like these that the Plantlife Scotland team works to protect. By providing landowners with help and advice, they can manage their land in such a way that helps our threatened wild flora and fungi. And where there are wild plants, you get other wildlife: butterflies, bees, birds and other creatures all creating a healthy habitat. Just recently we produced a free management guide for coastal grasslands like those those found at Assynt. You can find out what we're up to on our webpage or even better why not join us?

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