Saturday, 5 February 2011


Oysterplant (Mertensia maritima)        
Sea Lungwort, Northern Shorewort
Borage family
Height to 50cm; flowers June to August. Local and scarce in Orkney (14/28); local and rare around Britain’s coasts (71/2852)

This exquisite perennial is a northern plant, Norway and Iceland being its citadels in Europe. In Britain it is rare and found almost exclusively in Scotland on the west and north coasts and in the Northern Isles; in England it is virtually extinct. Orkney is undoubtedly the plant’s stronghold and it would be no exaggeration to say that there are more plants here than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Arguably it is as special to Orkney as the Scottish Primrose. However, within the county it has a restricted distribution and in recent years has disappeared from former sites most notably the Bay of Skaill in Sandwick and Birsay Bay but may still persist in low numbers on Westray and Stronsay. Nowadays it is most common on the soft coasts of Sanday, South Ronaldsay and at Newark Bay in Deerness. Plants may occur on beaches, both sandy and stony, where it thrives on soft surfaces disturbed by waves. It also thrives at No4 barrier where it grows along the A961 some 300 metres from the sea and a tyre’s width from the tarmac – here wave action is simulated by the blade of an Orkney Islands Council snow plough as it clears the build up of barrier sand after easterly gales. It has even been found growing on those unsightly spoil heaps of earth and rubble that appear all too frequently on Orkney’s shores in the name of coastal defence or coastal dump. Its rambling and leafy sprays radiate from the root like the spokes of a wheel. The leaves are oval, fleshy and grey-blue and its five-petalled flowers are initially pink before turning a radiant blue. The seeds can survive prolonged immersion in saltwater and its dispersion in sea currents enables the plant to colonise new but sometimes temporary sites; seeds have been known to travel at least 450km. Named because its leaves taste of oysters, its rarity should be a warning against collection.


The location for the Oysterplant painting is at the Pool of Cletts on the east side of South Ronaldsay. In the background is Kirkhouse Point with St Peter's kirk, the old kirk house and the base of the kirk house windmill. 

Anne's plate also depicts Sea Campion at Mar Wick Bay (top right), Curled Dock at Rapness on Westray (bottom left), Sea Rocket at Sandside Bay, Deerness (bottom right) and in the middle Cleavers at the Sand of Cornquoy in Holm

Tim has a real affinity with Oysterplant. For 14 years he worked on Walney Island in Cumbria as the warden of the South Walney Nature Reserve. Walney was one of the few places in England where Oysterplant had been recorded, and every year Tim looked for it, and failed to find it. The looking for it was akin to the search for the Holy Grail. Tim arrived on Walney in 1979; Oysterplant had last been recorded in 1974 and has not been relocated since. In Orkney he (and we) have the luxury of seeing hundreds of plants on beaches in South Ronaldsay and Sanday. The pictures below show the extent of Oysterplant at Liddle in South Ronaldsay where Common Gulls nest alongside.


  1. Delightful paintings Anne, can't wait until Spring to see some woodland flora! Interesting notes about Oysterplant and Tim's experiences. I first noticed this special plant on the upper beach below St Peter's Kirk and have kept an eye out for it since. I did find a couple of plants on Maeness beach on the east of Egilsay in 2009 though this area was washed away by winter storms and I couldn't find any in 2010. It will probably return? Good luck with your great project, Barry O' Dowd.

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