28 June 2010

The Perils of botanical identification

On the 8th of July last year I went up Cnoc Coinnich

In crags just below the summit I saw and photographed what I took to be an undersized Starry Saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris). It never occurred to me until after I had returned home, that it could be the much rarer Alpine Saxifrage (Saxifraga nivalis), though it didn't quite match the descriptions in the books, and I had never seen this species before.

I returned with the botanist responsible for maintaining the records for the area as he had an old record for this species on this hill. Unfortunately there had been a lot of rain and it appeared that the plant had been swept away, so we were never able to come to a definite conclusion.

Last week after I had been up Ben Dorain, I posted the image below on this blog, to show what I took to be Roseroot (Sedum rosea), Scurvygrass (Cochlearia sp.) and Starry Saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris). I had taken it to help in the identification of the Cochlearia species, and sent it to the same botanist.

After I had sent it, I had a closer look at the picture. The little saxifrage on the right didn't look quite right. I sent the full-size image of it to the same botanist who confirmed that this time it really looked like Alpine Saxifrage (Saxifraga nivalis).

I could scarcely believe that, having made the mistake once of failing to notice this species, I had managed to do so yet again, and had to confess this to the same botanical recorder on both occasions!

To see the difference between the two species, see the online Skye flora

Thanks to Carl Farmer for his help with this one.

20 June 2010

Wild flower hunting

Today I went on a search for a few rare flowers growing in marshes near the foot of Ben Ledi.

One of these was Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora), which grows in very wet marshes, mostly in central Scotland.

Some conifers had been planted in the area, and some of these had very attractive cones.

In the nearby woods I discovered this moth, which I have yet to identify.

We followed a path through the woods to another very marshy area.

Here we found the rare Marsh Stitchwort (Stellaria palustris)

There were also a number of orchids including this early Marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata)

Botanists at work below Ben Ledi

Ben Dorain

Yesterday was just about the most perfect day for hillwalking - dry, warm and sunny but with a fresh breeze.

I went up Ben Dorain, which always looks rather spectacular when seen from the south as you pass it by road or on the train.

Before starting the walk, I came face to face with these two red deer which were only a few yards from the car park.

The ascent from Bridge of Orchy station to the west of the hill is nothing like as steep as the south side. Ben Dorain itself is out of view on the right.

Near the top there were many colourful patches of Moss Campion (Silene acaulis) which seems to be flowering exceptionally well this year.

In a crack in the rock I found Roseroot (Sedum rosea), Scurvygrass (Cochlearia sp.) and Alpine Saxifrage (Saxifraga nivalis)*.

The view south from the summit looks down over the road and railway to the location of the first photo above.

From the summit there is a fine ridge walk.

The view north...

...and south

At the end of the walk I explored a tiny stream and found large numbers of Sundew plants (Drosera anglica and D. rotundifolia and their hybrid, D. x obovata). This one had caught a large fly.

*Note that I originally identified this as Starry saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris) but it has since been identified as the much rarer Saxifraga nivalis.

13 June 2010

Ben Ledi and its flowers

Yesterday I went for a walk up Ben Ledi.

This is a view of the hill seen from the south, which I took in 2008. The most popular route goes straight up the ridge, starting from the right side of the picture.

Yesterday most of the alpines were already in flower. The most interesting find was Dwarf Cornel (Cornus suecica). This is usually hard to find because it is not common and is also a shy flowerer, so I was rather excited to find some in flower when I didn't even know that it grew on this hill.

The flowers are the dark purple bobbles in the centre, which are surrounded by 4 white bracts.

Dwarf Cornel is commonly associated with Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), which is another shy flowerer, and this species was growing in close proximity.

Cloudberry is related to Blackberry and Raspberry and has a similar fruit, though these are dull orange in colour.

While most of the alpines present were white, the Moss Campion (Silene acaulis) provided a splash of bright colour. Although closely related to Red Campion, this plant forms a mat, flat on the ground, with the flowers on very short stalks.

Several Saxifrage species were growing on the hill, though the Yellow Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) was not yet in flower. There were a few patches of Mossy Saxifrage (Saxifraga hypnoides)...

but the commonest saxifrage present was Starry Saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris). This saxifrage has 2 tiny yellow dots on each petal.

Scurvygrass (Cochlearia sp.) belongs to the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae) and is unrelated to the Saxifrages. Each flower has 4 petals.

The name of this plant gives an indication of its chief use in the past - as a cure for scurvy due to its high vitamin C content.

Some other species on the hill

Hare's-tail Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum)

The insectivorous Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) on the left, and the leaves of Alpine Meadow-rue (Thalictrum alpinum) below.

Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) - another insectivore

Fir Clubmoss (Huperzia selago)

Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) - which later has tiny black berries. These are edible, though full of pips.

And finally, the view from the summit trig point.

11 June 2010

A week in the garden

Firstly I have to admit that I haven't exactly spent all week gardening, or even in the garden. I've tried to do a bit of clearing up, and this morning we cut the tops off some willow trees which were getting too tall to prune easily. Weeding is just about impossible, as everything grows faster than I can weed, and with orchids coming up everywhere including the garden beds and tubs, it's hard to weed without pulling some out accidentally.

Our drive is now a mass of Fairy Foxglove (Erinus alpinus). I bought one small pot of this some years ago and it has seeded itself everywhere where it can find suitable habitat - in gravel and cracks in concrete.

This flower originates from southern Europe, but has been known in the wild since 1867 and has spread rapidly recently, particularly on the walls of ruins.

A couple of years ago, Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) appeared in our drive among the Fairy Foxglove. Its appearance is a total mystery as I haven't seen it in any other local gardens. Its blue flowers open only in sunshine.

Another small plant which has seeded itself prolifically in our drive is the New Zealand Willowherb (Epilobium brunnescens).

This tiny plant, related to the very much larger willowherbs including Rosebay, was first seen in the wild in Edinburgh in 1904 and has spread widely since then, particularly in the north and west of the UK. We often find it on forestry paths when we are out walking.

I'm seldom in the garden for long before some of the birds start arriving, hoping for food. The most regular is this jackdaw, who is nesting in a chimney across the road. If I happen to walk past the chimney on my way home, he often flies down and accompanies me to the door where, of course, he usually gets rewarded with some food.

I suspect he is feeding young, as he collects a considerable amout of food before flying back with it to the chimney, then returning a few minutes later. If I'm in the garden for any length of time, I'm usually soon surrounded by any number of jackdaws and starlings.

Some of the tits are also getting quite bold. This coal tit flew back and forth to the feeder while I was standing only about a meter away.

I was about to refill the peanut feeder when I discovered this Brimstone Moth (Opisthograptis luteolata) inside. I have no idea how it could have got there.

Dandelions are a very common weed in our garden, and it's usually impossible to get the long roots out. I pulled this one out of one of the tubs and about 30cm of root came with it. I was interested to see that, although it was two plants, the two roots had fused to form one single root.

On Wednesday morning I was up early - at about 6 am - to refill the duck food trays. I opened the front door and found myself face to face with a fox. Of course it was away long before I could get my camera on it. One of our neighbours saw a roe deer on our front garden a week or two earlier. These visitors are never around the houses during the daytime, but on Thursday we surprised this one in a nearby field. It cleared the fence with no problem.

In the nearby fields we have noticed that everything seems to be flowering more vigourously than usual. This hawthorn is so covered in flowers that there is almost no room for the leaves.

04 June 2010


This morning we had to visit the west end of Glasgow early in the morning, so I was keen to go and have a look to see if the flowers of Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, which I had seen there before, would be open. Sure enough, at 9 o'clock in the morning there were two flowers open in the sunshine.

Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon (Tragopogon pratensis ssp. minor), also known as Goat's-beard, earns the first of these names by its habit of opening its flowers only on sunny mornings, closing them again at around noon. In ssp. minor the bracts are much longer than the yellow florets.

Some time ago I took a sequence of pictures of one flower at intervals through the day, and this composite image shows what happened.

The seed head is like a huge and rather elaborate dandelion clock.

The roots of the closely related Tragopogon porrifolius, or Salsify, are used as a vegetable.

03 June 2010

Sunny day in the Campsies

Today was a beautiful, warm and sunny day. We decided to walk along a ridge overlooking the Carron Valley reservoir, where we had been skiing in the winter.

Eventually we reached this waterfall, which was surrounded by flowers.

There had recently been a rock fall which has filled in the pool below the highest fall.

The picture below was taken in May 2009, before the rock fall.

A closer view of the freshly fallen rocks.

Nearby we found a few Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula)...

...and plenty of Mossy Saxifrage (Saxifraga hypnoides)

The sun had brought out lots of butterflies, including this freshly emerged Green-veined White...

... and a pair of Orange-tips.

The male is above and the female below. The flower is Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis) which is the most common species of flower on which the Orange-tip lays its eggs.