This beautiful relative of the saxifrages is one of our most elusive local wild flowers. It was first recorded back in 1767 by James Robertson, somewhere near Inchnadamph (NC2521). Archibald Gray found it at or near Loch Awe (NC2415) in the course of his ‘careful examination of the large district of Assynt’ in 1886, and it was noted at Achmelvich (NC0525) in the 1950s. No further information is available for any of these records (the grid references are approximations) and it has not been seen since at any of these three locations.
In survey work for the Flora of Assynt (2002), it was recorded from just one site, a new one. This was on the northern bank of the county boundary river, Abhainn a’Chnocain, just east of Loch Veyatie (NC2112), on 27th August 1996, when about ten plants were noted in flower in wet grassland. However, on 12th July 2005, a large population was found by Gordon Rothero, Pat and Ian Evans at Knockan, just below the resurgence of the underground limestone river (NC2010/2110), with a small outlier further down the same watercourse.
The plot thickened shortly afterwards, when Ben and Alison Averis included grass-of-parnassus in the ‘list of all plant species found’ in their Vegetation Survey of Quinag, Sutherland, undertaken in July 2006 and July 2007. This record had been overlooked until recently, but, when questioned, Ben admitted that they had not realised it was a local rarity, given its abundance elsewhere in Scotland, including the north coast of Sutherland, and could give no further details.
This was the background to our fieldwork on 16th August 2020, when we searched what we thought might be the most likely site on Quinag. This was ground between the Allt Sgiathaig and the road north of Skiag Bridge (NC2324), where there is some base-flushing from limestones east of the road (photo 1). There was evidence of their influence, in the form of a good population of quaking-grass Briza media down a small tributary burn, but no sign of grass-of-parnassus. We have since had a look at ground further up the hill (NC2325), but, again, without success.
Just to make sure that it had not been a poor season for flowering, we took ourselves off to Knockan, where we were pleased to find grass-of-parnassus in quantity, in a marshy area above some sallow bushes (photo 2), with many plants still in flower (photos 3-4). Seen close-up (photo 5), these flowers are truly beautiful. They have five creamy-white petals with incised greenish veins, and five large staminodes, each with ten or more linear processes bearing numerous, yellow, glandular nectaries, looking like droplets of gold.
There was, again, a small outlier further down the watercourse. The site also had a good spread of the tall, cottony, fruiting heads of broad-leaved cottongrass Eriophorum latifolium, which usually occurs, in smaller quantities, in stony base-rich springs (photo 6).
Whilst in the neighbourhood, we paid our respects to quite the largest stand in Assynt of the greater tussock-sedge Carex paniculata, which occurs in a separate marshy field about 200m to the north-west (photo 7). This makes dense tussocks over a metre tall, producing flowering stems up to twice that height. It was again first found in that area on 12th July 2005, when some 50 tussocks were counted. The field also houses a large population of melancholy thistle Cirsium heterophyllum, but grazing had reduced the number of flowering heads.
Ian Evans and Gwen Richards