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'

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