Assynt’s Trees and Shrubs

November 28th 2023

Assynt’s Trees and Shrubs


1.  Origins. 

This article is based on a workshop on ‘Identifying Assynt Trees and Shrubs in Autumn’ organised by the Culag Community Woodland Trust (CCWT) and Assynt Field Club (AFC) and held at the Leisure Centre, Lochinver on 9th November 2023.  We would like to thank all the participants for their contributions. 

It was prompted by an approach to the CCWT by local author Mandy Haggith in connection with a funding application for a project on local wych elms Ulmus glabra.  Assynt is the last stronghold in Highland Scotland for this tree, which elsewhere has been widely attacked by the fungus responsible for Dutch Elm Disease, and the bark beetles that spread it.  The disease may recently have reached Assynt.

We thought that such a workshop might be a useful initial contribution to the project.  Since autumn leaf fall was well on its way, leaves of a wide range of local species, both native and introduced, were collected and pressed to form a basis for it.  

2. Definitions. 

Trees and shrubs may be loosely defined as self-supporting woody perennials, which excludes woody climbers such as honeysuckle and ivy.  However, some local trees and shrubs are ground-hugging.  This is either their natural habit, as in dwarf willow, or because of the impact of browsing mammals, as in montane specimens of dwarf or prostrate juniper, which can, in protected places, grow to a height of 1m or more.

For convenience, we have also excluded from consideration, on this occasion, other woody perennials such as bog myrtle, bramble and raspberry (which have short-lived woody canes), broom, crowberry, currants (black and red), gorse/whin, heather and its relatives, and our many wild roses.  We have also omitted cotoneasters, some of which are widely bird-sown locally, and most of the introduced conifers in plantations and gardens across the parish. 

Despite these exclusions, Assynt can still muster at least 20 native species and a similar number of frequently introduced species.  

3.  Identification.

Identifying trees and shrubs is easier if you can take into account overall form, together with bark, twigs, buds, flowers and fruits, but these notes concentrate on their leaves.  If you really want to get to grips with them, a practical tip is to colour-scan or photograph a selection of leaves from each species under consideration, and annotate a print-out with the salient features.  Such scans have been used to illustrate the species notes following this introduction. 

With an example in hand, the first questions to ask yourself are:

a.  Are the leaves simple or compound (with separate leaflets off the main stalk)?

b.  Are compound leaves palmate (with leaflets radiating from a central point, as in horse chestnut) or pinnate (with paired leaflets up a central midrib, as in rowan and ash)?

c.  What is the general shape of the leaves or leaflets?  Many technical terms are used as shorthand for variations in shape, but noting whether sides are rounded or parallel, points sharp or blunt, and bases wedge-shaped, straight, or heart-shaped will do for a start.

d.  Are the margins of leaves or leaflets entire (smooth), toothed (as in hazel, elm and many others), sinuate (with rounded indentations, as in oak), or lobed (with deep indentations, as in sycamore)?

e.  Lastly, are the stalks of the leaves or leaflets long or short and rounded or flattened in cross-section (aspen is good example of the latter).

4. Further sources of information take four forms.  

There are very good apps for mobile phones which will do your naming for you (PictureThis is an impressive example).  However, if you want to improve your personal identification skills, and perhaps move on to identifying other plants, trees and shrubs are a good place to start.

Books about trees and shrubs are legion, but some suffer from overkill, covering all the species found in northern Europe, both native and introduced.  We recommend just two titles, one old, the other more recent.

a.Trees and Bushes in Wood and Hedgerow by Helge Vedel and Johan Lange, a practical handbook, published by Methuen in 1960, with lovely artwork of all aspects of its subjects (photo 1).

b.  Trees of Britain and Ireland by Edward Milner, published by the Natural History Museum in 2011, with a wide-ranging, well-illustrated, account of their history, form, place in natural ecosystems, use by man, and associated animals and plants, which features examples from Assynt (photo 2). 

Notes on local species, together with maps of their known distribution up to 2000, may be found in the Flora of Assynt (Evans, Evans and Rothero, 2002), the full text of which was posted on the Assynt Field Club website on June 5th 2015.

The website also carries many articles featuring local trees and shrubs, links to which have been listed below under the species.  Additions will be made as they come to hand.

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards

A provisional checklist of Assynt trees and shrubs

Widespread species

Aspen Populus tremula.  Native.  Leaves medium, rounded, with blunt teeth; leaf-stalk flattened, hence their fluttering movement in the wind (photo 3a).  The leaves are sometimes brightly coloured in the autumn, but many are attacked by specific fungi, turning them black.  Website:  Quinag’s trees;   Aspens in Assynt in autumn;   Duart Nedd: surprises in a familiar landscape (photos 8-12);   Loch Culag and the Culag River: a spring walk (photos 6-7);   Assynt Aspens in flower.

Birch, downy Betula pubescens.  Native; our commonest woodland tree.  Leaves small, triangular, with wedge-shaped bases and toothed edges (photo 3b).  Website:  Quinag’s trees;  Birch fruits galore.

Hazel Corylus avellana. Native.  Leaves large, broad and rounded, with pointed tips and toothed edges (photo 3d).  Website:  Buds going nowhere;  Little Assynt Wildlife Project (1) Torr Mor, Trees;  Atlantic Hazel Audit of Assynt and Coigach 2017-18;  Hazel catkins under attack.

Holly Ilex aquifolium.  Native.  Leaves evergreen, undulating and spiny.  Website: Quinag’s trees;   Exploring Quinag: Bad nan Carbad.

Rowan Sorbus aucuparia.  Native.  Leaves medium, pinnate; leaflets small, toothed (photo 3c).  Website:  How many berries?;   Achadh Mor Lagg: unfamiliar ground (photos 2-7).

Willow, eared Salix aurita.  Native; our commonest species of willow.  Leaves small, spoon-shaped, with rounded teeth, wrinkled texture, woolly below (photo 4a).  

Willow, grey Salix cinerea. Native; unusually-large old trees occur in some coastal locations.  Leaves medium, with blunt teeth, shiny above, woolly below (and often rusty).  Hybrid with eared willow is widespread.  Website:  Hairy willow twigs.

Less common species

Alder Alnus glutinosa.  Native; formerly rare, but much planted recently.  Leaves large, rounded, with blunt ends and toothed edges; they do not turn yellow in autumn (photo 4b).  Website:  Little Assynt: a walk in November;  Two unusual trees in the Kirkaig valley;  A spring walk up the Traligill (photos 13-14);  Inchnadamph and the Loanan valley (photo 12).

Ash Fraxinus excelsior.  Possibly native; concentrated in certain areas such as around Rhicarn, scattered elsewhere.  Leaves large, pinnate; leaflets toothed (photo 4d).  Website:  The mysteries of ash flowers.

Blackthorn Prunus spinosa.  Possibly native, but usually occurs close to habitation.   Leaves small, toothed (photo 4c).  Website:  Blackthorn in Assynt – a good spring;  Stoer: search for the ‘hollow of the thorns’.

Elder Sambucus nigra.  Introduced, widely planted around habitation, rarely bird-sown elsewhere.  Leaves large, pinnate and malodorous; leaflets few, toothed (photo 5a).  Website:   A spring walk up the Traligill.

Elm, wych Ulmus glabra.  Native; scattered, often beside watercourses, on or below crags.  Leaves large, toothed, with lop-sided bases and very rough texture (photo 5b).  Website:  Liath Bhad and Loch Glencoul, a return visit (photo 14);  Allt a’Chalda Mor, Inchnadamph (photo 2);  A spring walk up the Traligill (photo 15); more to follow.

Juniper, dwarf or prostrate Juniperus communis nana.  Native conifer; often ground-hugging due to browsing or exposure, but can grow to 1m or more on loch islands or crags.  Leaves evergreen, needle-shaped.  Website:  Clachtoll Peat Track: a suite of evergreens (photos 10-20);  Some surprises along the Stoer Peat Track (photo 10);  Little Assynt: lochs, rocks and lichens (photo 17).

Oaks, Quercus spp.  Native, although perhaps also planted in places; prefers south-facing slopes.  Leaves medium, sinuate (photo 5d).  The great majority of the trees in Assynt appear to be the hybrid between pedunculate and sessile oaks Q. x rosacea 

Pine, Scots Pinus sylvestris.  Former native, locally extinct for some 4000 years; extensively planted in the 19th century around Lochinver, at Drumbeg and on islands in Loch Assynt, and more recently at Little Assynt and in crofter forestry schemes.  Evergreen conifer, with needles in pairs.  Other pines occur in plantations and elsewhere.   Website:  A walk up the Unapool Burn, Quinag (bog pine in photos 8-9);  Fungal growth on Scots Pine Little Assynt.

Spruce, Sitka Picea sitchensis.  Introduced; extensively planted around Lochinver and elsewhere since the 19th century, and seeding itself nearby.  Numerous flattened, rather spiky, needles arranged either side of the shoots.  Requires careful distinction from Norway Spruce, which is less commonly planted.

Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus.  Introduced; planted around Lochinver and elsewhere, and widely established from wind-borne seed on rocky loch shores and screes.  Leaves large, palmately lobed (photo 5c).  

Willow, bay Salix pentandra.  Introduced; widely planted around habitation south of Lochinver, sparsely elsewhere; all trees are male.  Leaves large, glossy above.  Website:  Two interesting willows at Stoer;  Rusty willows at Strathan.

Willow, creeping Salix repens.  Native.  Prostrate, in coastal and montane heathland.  Leaves small, narrow, with silky hairs below.  

Willow, dwarf Salix herbacea.  Native.  Prostrate; usually montane, but at 15m a.s.l. at Duart Drumbeg.  Leaves small, circular, with rounded teeth.  

Willow, goat Salix caprea.  Native.  A large tree; leaves large, resembling those of apple, downy below (photo 6a).  Website:  Goat willow – an Assynt champion tree;  Liath Bhad and Loch Glencoul, a return visit (photo 13).

Rarer species

Beech Fagus sylvatica.  Introduced; planted up the River Inver, in Culag Wood and occasionally elsewhere.  Leaves medium, entire, parallel veined (photo 6b).          Website:  Culag Wood revisited (photo 20).

Birch, dwarf Betula nana.  Native.  Reliably recorded from Canisp (on the east side, at about 540m) in 1985, but not seen since.  Leaves small, circular and toothed. 

Birch, silver Betula pendula.  Introduced; planted in small numbers along the River Inver and elsewhere.  Leaves small, triangular, with double-toothed edges.  Website:  Culag Wood revisited (photo 10).

Cherry, bird Prunus padus.  Native; frequent around Loch Nedd, scattered elsewhere.  Leaves medium, toothed (photo 6d).  Website:  Sprawling giant;  Duart Nedd: surprises in a familiar landscape (photos 1-6).

Cherry, wild Prunus avium.  Introduced, widely planted in gardens, occasionally found by roadsides.  Leaves, large, pointed, toothed (photo 6c). 

Guelder-rose Viburnum opulus.  Native, nearly always on watercourses (such as the River Inver) and wet crags.  Not a rose.  Leaves medium, lobed, turn dark red in autumn (photo 7a).  Website:   Guelder Rose in Assynt.

Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna.  Possibly native, where it occurs on the limestone near Ardvreck Castle, but widely planted and bird-sown elsewhere.  Leaves small, lobed and toothed (photo 7b).  

Horse-chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum.  Occasionally planted in gardens; on roadside near Lochinver.  Leaves large, palmate, leaflets toothed (photo 7c).  

Lime, common Tilia x europaea.  Introduced; occasionally planted, as in the centre of Culag Wood.  Leaves large, heart-shaped, thin (photo 7e).  Website:  Culag Wood revisited (photo 10).

Whitebeam, rock Sorbus rupicola.  Native; our rarest species, confined to crags at Stronchrubie and near Kylesku.  Leaves medium, toothed, whitish below.

Willow, almond-leaved Salix triandra.  Introduced; used in basketry etc.; one tree at Inverkirkaig.    Leaves medium, narrow, toothed.  Website:  An unusual willow at Inverkirkaig.

Willow, broad-leaved osier Salix x smithiana.  Introduced hybrid; probably used in basketry etc.  Leaves large, narrow.  Website:  Clashnessie Falls: an August miscellany.

Willow, osier Salix viminalis.  Introduced; used in basketry etc.; always found close to habitation; all trees are male.  Leaves long, narrow, parallel-sided, silvery below (photo 7d).  Website: Osiers in flower.

Willow, tea-leaved Salix phylicifolia.  Native; discovered on islands in Loch Urigill in 2016, though hybrids with other species had previously been found elsewhere.  Leaves medium, shiny above.  Website:  Island adventure, Loch Urigill.

Willow, white Salix alba.  Introduced; examples at Stoer and in Culag Wood.  Leaves medium, white below.  Website:  Two interesting willows at Stoer.

Willow, whortle-leaved Salix myrsinites.  Native, virtually confined to the limestone around Inchnadamph.  Leaves, medium, shiny.  

[For completeness, there are historical records of four other willows from Assynt, none of which were found in fieldwork for the Flora.   They are crack willow Salix fragilis (near Stoer and at Drumbeg in the 1950s), downy willow S. lapponum (Allt nan Uamh, 1956), purple willow S. purpurea (River Kirkaig, 1886) and silky-leaved osier S. x holosericea (Lochinver, 1943).  There are also several other interesting, if challenging, hybrids, details of which may be found in the Flora, including two with tea-leaved willow as one of their parents (identified by an expert).

Finally, two clumps of a montane willow were photographed, high on the north face of Canisp, during the High Value Open Habitat Survey of Assynt Foundation land carried out by Colin Wells and Ruth Maier in 2020.  The ground was too unstable for a sample to be collected, and their identity remains a mystery.] 




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