Saturday, 10 November 2012

Sheep's-bit - a November surprise

I couldn't believe my eyes in South Ronaldsay today......well it is 10th November - Sheep's-bit in flower. It's a rare plant in Orkney and by all accounts occurs solely on South Ronaldsay, Eday and North Ronaldsay. According to Elaine Bullard's 'Wildflowers in Orkney' it is restricted to 'sea banks on red sandstones only'. Its rarity within the county means that it won't feature in 'The Book'!!!!!

Sometimes it is called Sheep's-bit Scabious but it does not belong to the scabious family, it is one of the bellflowers.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Ruithy Girs - Corn Spurrey

And here is Orkney's other 'spurrey' - 'Ruithy Girs'; arguably it has always been far better known than the two saltmarsh spurreys due to its historical importance as a famine crop. However it is nowhere as abundant as it formerly was; it may be found in arable crops or more likely in set-aside. In bygone days it was harvested and the Orkney landscape would have featured extensive areas of the crop. I came upon such a field on Wyre in 2010. And here's the field southwest of Cubbie Roo's castle.



The draft text for this vanishing plant reads something like this:
Corn Spurrey (Spergula arvensis)   Campion family       Ruithy Girs

Height to 15cm; flowers July to September. Widespread and scarce in Orkney (22/28); not easy to find.

Often where it does occur, it grows in great abundance and it is not uncommon to see whole arable fields covered. It is an annual that can flourish in open and recently disturbed ground such as ploughed fields especially where the soils are light. In agricultural circles, a profusion of Corn Spurrey indicated the need to apply fertiliser. Despite its generally fragile appearance it is a plant with a robust and important history. There is evidence of its use as human food during Roman times and there is also speculation that in Orkney it may have been a key food source during the neolithic period. We know for a fact that Corn Spurrey has been grown as a fodder crop in Britain for centuries and in times of poor crop yields and shortages, its seeds were mixed with the crop grain and ground for flour. When not feeding humans it was more usually given as feed to hens.

The leaves appear dusty and are thin, blunt and furrowed below. They are thread-like and arranged in conspicuous whorls. Brittle stems support tiny, white, five-petalled flower-heads which are often turned down almost bestowing a shyness to this delicate and now declining plant.