Tree-hugging pincushion

June 12th 2020

Tree-hugging pincushion

Trees hereabouts host a wide range of epiphytes, other plants that grow upon them (without causing any harm), including mosses, liverworts, lichens and ferns.  One such is a willow on the bank above the road at Loch Ruighean an Aitinn, Drumbeg (NC1232), which caught the eye of David Haines on 6th April 2020.

Its trunk and larger branches are covered with rounded clumps of a moss whose leaves curl up when dry.  I was able to place the moss, from David’s photographs, in the genus Ulota, the pincushions. Six species of pincushions were recorded by Gordon Rothero from trees and bushes in Assynt (see Flora of Assynt, 2002, pp. 241-242).

Identifying most of these is a job for an expert like Gordon but, fortunately, collecting a small specimen from the tree revealed a unique character that gave me its name.  The nerves that protrude from the ends of the uppermost leaves on the shoots bear dense clusters of tiny brown gemmae, many-celled devices for vegetative propagation.  This is diagnostic of the frizzled pincushion Ulota phyllantha.  Not unexpectedly, given this apparently very efficient means of spreading itself about, this species very rarely produces capsules.  It is common on trees across Assynt, especially near the coast, where it also occurs on rocks.

Ian M. Evans

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