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.