Thursday, 15 December 2011

Winter rosettes

If you look hard in sheltered locations you can still see a few flowers out - Daisies and Dandelions can be seen in all months and on Tuesday 13th Dec, I heard of Snowdrops in bloom in a St Ola garden. But even if the plant is not flowering there is plenty still to see. At the weekend I was out on the north shore of Burray which is washed by the waters of Weddell Sound. Plenty of birds including Long-tailed Ducks and a single female Common Scoter. In a geo near the broch I came upon a great gathering of large rosettes of Buck's-horn Plantain and the more I looked at them the more I was transfixed by their seemingly perfect symmetry.

North shore of Burray

The sandy geo packed with Buck's-horn Plantains

And here's the draft text for this underrated and understated plant:

Buck’s-horn Plantain (Plantago coronopus) 
Plantain family
Height to 10cm; flowers May to July. Easy to find.
Very widespread and abundant in Orkney (26/28) and in Britain (1272/2852) although absent from high ground.

In very exposed conditions the circular rosettes of leaves are often strikingly conspicuous on bare earth or in short grassland near the coast. They are the tiny spokes of a tiny cartwheel or J.C.Loudon’s ‘star of the earth’ in his mid-Victorian Encyclopaedia of Gardening. Those plants closest to the harshest of the elements are the most hairy and take on a sheen of silver. This biennial is the only Plantain in which the leaves are divided into toothed leaflets; plants in less exposed locations are bigger and more upright and the antler-like leaves resemble the horns of a buck. The flowers are yellow-brown and sit in short greenish spikes on top of an unfurrowed stalk.

Its distribution in Orkney and Britain is chiefly coastal but in the south and southeast of England it ventures quite far inland and as with some oher halophytes, it is increasing beside salt-treated roads.

Plantains were valued as healing herbs chiefly because of their ability to withstand trampling. Sympathetically this would mean that they could remedy bruising, crushing, tearing, burns and sores. It is however likely that other members of the Plantain family were utilised rather than the small and at times insignificant Buck’s-horn Plantain.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Anne's last plate

My apologies for not describing the finer points of Anne's last plate - the first of the Freshwater/wetland section.

Top left is Marsh Marigold at the northern end of the Loch of Swanney.
Top middle is Ragged Robin on Swona.
Top right is Water Mint on the Loch of Harray looking to the Stenness kirk.
Bottom left is Meadowsweet on the Wideford Burn in St Ola.
Bottom middle is Great Willowherb at Brodgar.
Bottom right is Cuckooflower/Lady's Smock at St Andrew's Mill.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Orkney Book of Birds - pocket edition

The Orkney Book of Birds is now available as a pocket edition. Nothing from the original book has been left out, indeed Orkney's world of birds changes constantly and we have been able to include a species list, thanks to Paul Higson, that is current up to 31st July 2011.

Signed copies are available from myself (Tim) or from Tracy Hall's website priced at 9.99 sterling

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Wetland flowers

Here's the first wetland or freshwater plate.  I've enjoyed painting this one, although once again it has taken a little longer than expected.  I find the plants growing in this habitat to be particularly characterful - often with quite striking flowers and/or leaves.  Some, like the Marsh Marigold, shown below, have quite architectural leaves and seem very robust whilst others like the Ragged Robin, also featured in this plate, appear very fragile and delicate. 

Some of these flowers have been unfamiliar to me.  I found this a little surprising because although I'm not a botanist I find it hard to believe I could have walked past the flamboyant blooms of the Great Willowherb without acknowledging their existence! (Great or Greater Tim? - you'll need to correct me).  Perhaps the somewhat inaccessible nature of the habitat means that some of the species are less frequently seen unless you go out looking for them?  Whatever the reason, I look forward to the next plate which includes one of my favourite flowers of wetter environs, Marsh Cinquefoil.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Bog Asphodel in autumn

A trip up into the West Mainland Hills walking along the Harray and Rendall border. The autumn colours of the hill; the palest by far are the bleached leaves and dry flowers of Bog Asphodel, known as Pulderuck in

Pulderuck's view of Ward Hill and the Cuilags on Hoy

It's worth remembering them from our all too short summer.

This is part of the carpet of Bog Asphodels that sweeps down into Spretta Meadow just south of Yesnaby. The picture below illustrates the whole sweep. 

The leaves and stems are bleached in autumn. By late December they rise white as bones above the moor.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Crowberry is such a widespread plant in Orkney and at this time of year is in its best autumn colours.
Here is the draft text for Orkney's 'Heather Berry' and you can see how important this common plant was for everyday life.

Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum)                         Heather berry
Crowberry family
Height to 40cm; flowers April to June, fruits June to September. Very easy to find.
Very widespread and abundant in Orkney (25/28); frequent and widespread in upland Britain (1162/2852), absent from the Midlands and southern England.

The Yorkshire name is Wireling – a succinct description of this tough and wiry stemmed, evergreen relative of heather. Across Britain it is a shrub of the uplands, far more abundant in Scotland than in Wales or England. In Orkney it can be found on acid soils countywide but appears to prosper on the heaths that are close to the sea. In fact it is not uncommon to see plants clinging precariously to the cliff edge with brown, burned leaves due to the constant buffeting by the wind and persistent drenching of salt spray. The leaves are glossy green and linear with rolled back margins which make the underside impossible to see. The flowers are tiny and composed of six tiny and separate pink sepals. The female plant bears the berries which turn from green to black.

For centuries in Orkney, Crowberry was high on the list of useful and indispensible plants. Archaeological excavations at Skara Brae unearthed small pieces of rope twisted from the stems of this shrub. Indeed we know that it served a similar purpose in the North Isles right up to the beginning of the 20th century. From ‘ropes’ it is a fairly small step to ‘baskets’ and for maybe 5000 years Crowberry was integral to the manufacture of cubbies, luppies, skep and kaisies, all of them woven containers of different types and capable of performing different functions It provided a purplish dye and another of its merits was that it was edible – hence its Orkney name Heather berry. However, the small black berries make for poor eating so that extremely large gatherings are needed to make jam or jelly. In the raw state, the fruits are gritty, with stones bigger than flesh, and tasting of turpentine. The Norse name Kraekling sums it all up, the berry was suitable only for crakes or crows.

     Clinging to the smallest patch of peaty soil. This one flourishing in the confines of the top of a fence stab.

                                              Look carefully and you'll see the berry 'fit for a Crow'

Friday, 16 September 2011

Anne's latest plate

Just to explain Anne's latest brilliant plate. As she says it's the last of the plates that depicts the wildflowers of the 'Dunes, links and dry grasslands'.

Top left - Ragwort at Scrimpo on Rousay
Top right - Hardhead at No4 barrier, Burray
Centre - Red Clover at Warebeth, Stromness
Bottom left - White Clover at Scapa, St Ola
Bottom right - Bugloss at Noltland on Westray

PS: Scrimpo is a super little sandy beach on the northeast side of Rousay.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Links 5

At long last, the final links plate is completed.

Now we move on to the Freshwater section.  I'm really looking forward to this - so many interesting and characterful plants to paint; Marsh Cinquefoil, Flag Iris, Ragged Robin.....

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The variety that is Devil's-bit Scabious

No one can have failed to notice how abundant Devil's-bit Scabious is at this time of the year in Orkney. It really is the dominant flowering plant on dry heath, maritime heath and heathy roadside verges.

Devil's-bit Scabious on coastal heath with the papery seed capsules of Spring Squill containing seeds of jet waiting to fall to the ground

Most of the flowerheads are lilac-blue but every so often you bump into different shades of pink and even creamy white

The leaves are hirsute and often very heavily spotted.
And here is the draft for the book:

16. Devil’s-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis)                
Blue Bonnets, Blue Buttons, Blue Heads, Blue Kiss.
Teasel family
Height to 80cm; flowers June to October. Very easy to find.
Very widespread and abundant in Orkney (25/28) and in Britain (2395/2852) although absent from parts of East Anglia.

One of the most conspicuous of Orkney’s late summer flowers, Devil’s-bit Scabious is known from just about everywhere in the county except Sule Skerry. It enjoys moist and slightly acidic soils and although it is frequently encountered amongst cliff-top heath, it is also profuse on inland heaths, in rough grassland and in mires but it is predictably scarce in sandy areas. The rounded flowerheads are generally in shades of purple, violet, mauve and blue but occasionally white or pink may be met with. Colloquial names referring to the colour of the flowerheads are widespread nationally and include Blue Bonnets from Somerset, Blue Buttons from Yorkshire, Blue Heads from Shropshire and Blue Kiss from Sussex. It is a hairy perennial with elliptical, untoothed leaves which often have dark blotches.

The plant has a very short root-stock as though part of it has been bitten off. The story goes that the Devil was envious of the plant’s ability and virtue and bit the root to destroy or render it less effective. In medieval times it was the apothecaries’ plant for the scab or scabies but in later years it was considered a herbal cure-all especially for scrofula and toothache.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Last of the wildflower walks

'Los afficionados'
We had our last wildflower walk of the season on Saturday 20th August. The classes had been looking at Orkney's various habitats and today's turn meant that we would be heading off into the hill to look at 'heath' and 'dale'. Our journey into the hill took us along the Bigswell Road which was lined with the lilac flowers of Devil's-bit Scabious. It really seems to have had a sudden blossoming in Orkney in the last two weeks.

Our route took us alongside the Burn of Russadale and up to the quarry. The hill was at its colourful best with Ling and Bell heather covering the slopes. The 'dale' still looked lush with swathes of Rosebay Willowherb and patches of Valerian still in flower. The large round leaves of Water Avens were still very obvious but most of the flowers had seeded. We found a couple of clumps of Blaeberry heavy with fruit. At the quarry the little clusters of Fairy Flax had lost their white bonnets and been replaced with brown round seed heads.

Bell heather


Blaeberry heavy with berries

Rosebay Willowherb

Water Avens - seeding; Devil's-bit Scabious

Fairy Flax - 14 days ago

The same patch of Fairy Flax 14 days later

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Elaine R.Bullard (1915 - 2011)

Elaine slipped from this world on August 10th after a short illness and long life. She has been a guiding light. Self-taught, she was active for fifty years in the county and held the post of plant recorder until she was 93. A full obituary will appear in the local press in due course but until then Prof Sam Berry's simple eulogy says it all - 'Miss E.R.Bullard, botanist and doyenne of Orkney naturalists'.

The picture is of Elaine on her 95th birthday with my daughter Eleanor at Yesnaby.

Elaine wanted to see her beloved Primula scotica,

and here it is next to a High School Musical sneaker!

Monday, 15 August 2011

The gem that is Graemsay

One of the most important aspects of the Orkney Book of Wildflowers is for the flowers that are depicted to be set in an appropriate location. We have to be truthful - the illustrated flower must occur in the location that forms the backdrop to the plate. However it can be long-winded process to find the perfect site. The chosen background must be visually strong and depict an Orkney view that is recognisable. You also have to take into account the welfare of the artist - she doesn't want to fall asleep at her easel. She needs the right and stimulating combination too. So it is with those ideas in mind that I set out to the various islands and parishes to search for what at times appears as elusive as the Holy Grail.

On Tuesday it was Graemsay's turn. The island is a gem with a splendid array of wildflowers and Tuesday's visit provided me with locations for at least five of the flowers that will be included in 'the book' - Creeping Willow, Sneezewort, Shepherd's Purse, Goldenrod and Lousewort. The verges were a delight with Eyebrights everywhere and though the Twayblades were over, they would have been a tremendous sight a month ago. One of my favourite hoverflies, the 'large and silent one' (Sericomyia silentis), indulged on the sprays of Wild Anglica. I was particularly pleased with the display of Goldenrod along the eastern side of the island which has caused me to change my original location for this flower's location (Nowt Bield, Hoy) - it will now be Graemsay with Hoy High lighthouse as the backdrop.

My six hours on Graemsay were a tonic. Not only did I manage to find some target flowers,  I also bumped into an Otter. While leaning on the bridge at the Burn of Quoys ruminating over the day's successes I heard a great deal of heavy splashing sounds coming up the burn - you would have thought a Water Buffalo was on the charge such was the din - a few seconds later a dog Otter appeared and promptly launched itself into the deeper waters near the bridge. I obtained one image - body submerged, tail raised and a ribbon of bubbles streaming from its nostrils.

Creeping Willow's view of Hoy from Graemsay

Granite outcrop with Cuilags behind

Eyebrights and Sea Plantain on granite outcrop

Goldenrod view of Hoy High lighthouse



Willow curtain at the quarry

Sericomyia silentis on Wild Angelica

'Up periscope' - dog otter at Burn of Quoys

Monday, 8 August 2011

A couple of things.....

1) In mid-July Anne removed the Banner. The Vat of Kirbuster on Stronsay was the setting for the 'Sea cliffs, Coastal grassland and Coastal heath' section of the book. It has been replaced by the habitat plate for 'Sand and Shingle Shores - the soft coast' (try saying that quickly). The setting for this habitat section is Sanday - more specifically the curiously named bay called Groanies adjacent to Start Point - you can see the lighthouse in the background.
Anne has painted typical wildflowers to be found there: Curled Dock, Perennial Sow-thistle, Sea Sandwort, Sea Rocket and Oysterplant.

2) Anne's latest plate, the fourth dealing with the 'Links and Dry grasslands' section features some very familiar and some less familiar wildflowers. The familiar ones are of course Bird's-foot Trefoil (Bay of Creekland, Hoy) and Self-heal (Birsay links). The less familar links plants are Bulbous Buttercup (Sand of Rothiesholm, Stronsay), Curved Sedge (Bu links, Burray), Sea Bindweed and Lesser Meadow-rue (both at the northern end of Newark Bay, South Ronaldsay).

Anne has done a super job with all of them and there is just one more 'Links'plate to do which will feature Red Clover, White Clover, Hardheads, Ragwort and Bugloss.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Latest Wildflower walk - Saturday 30th July

Our fourth wildflower walk of the summer took us to Burray and South Ronaldsay to look at both the 'yellow dune' and the 'grey dune'.

Los Afficionados admiring Oysterplant at the Pool o'Cletts, Eastside, South Ronaldsay

No4 barrier, Burray
Immature dunes (or Yellow dunes) are the sandy areas closest to the shore. The plants that grow there are integral to the formation of the dunes – their roots and leaves trap and hold the sand and are the first stage in the process of stabilisation. At the Fourth barrier, where the dunes are sixty years old, there is little maturity. The barrier is still very dynamic and ‘yellow’ and consequently is covered with early stage plants such as Lyme-grass, Marram Grass, Sea Sandwort and Orache. We also saw Perennial Sowthistle, Prickly Sowthistle, Common Catsear and Curled Dock, typical of this habitat and help in the formation of the mature or Grey dune.

Seeding Sea Sandwort
Immature dunes and beach
Orache, Sea Rocket, Lyme-grass, Marram Grass, Oysterplant, Sea Sandwort, Curled Dock.
Sea Rocket, in white and lilac, tended to lie lower on the beach than the Oysterplant. Both species still showed well but the Oysterplant, which in Britain only occurs in Scotland, was just beginning to turn. Orkney is very important for this plant; the county is its national stronghold with South Ronaldsay and Sanday pre-eminent.

Leaves the size of small cabbages on this Oysterplant

Mature dunes (or Grey dunes) are stable dunes which are characterised by species such as Ladies Bedstraw and Yarrow. Our walk along the upper path took us across carpets of bedstraw and passed clumps of Yarrow in many assorted pastel colours – white, pinks, magentas and lilacs.

Yarrow's stunning colours

Bird’s-foot Trefoil was still in flower but at this time in the year, the leaves begin to dominate. Angelica was beginning to unfurl while the Hogweed was starting to seed. Spear Thistles and Creeping Thistles grew abundantly in the overgrazed dunes inside the fence. At the southern end of the dunes were massed clumps of Lesser Meadow-rue none of which was in flower although we saw its seed-pods. However our exertions across the sands were not in vain – on a small sandy headland, Orkney’s only patch of Sea Bindweed was in full flower and we were a very appreciative audience. This little patch is out on a limb – the next nearest in Scotland is on the links at Arbroath.

Sea Bindweed