New Year Plant Hunt

January 18th 2024

New Year Plant Hunt

Late last year the Field Club was invited by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland to join in their New Year Plant Hunt.  This takes place across the British Isles between 30th December and 2nd January, and aims to list all the plants found in flower in a particular place.   

We chose the 1km grid square NC 0922, which covers Lochinver, south from the Medical Centre to the Culag River.   Ian and Gwen did a reconnaissance on Boxing Day and then, on Sunday 31st, six members gathered at the Surgery Carpark (photo 1) for the Plant Hunt proper.  Since plants actually flowering were likely to be few this far north, we logged all we could identify, omitting any that appeared to have been planted.

The tally was a respectable 102 species, although only three were in flower: annual meadow-grass Poa annua, daisy Bellis perennis and gorse Ulex europaeus.  Their names have been forwarded to the BSBI as a contribution to the nationwide survey.  

The last time that we did a systematic list of plants in Lochinver was back in the 1990s, as a contribution to the Flora of Assynt (2002), and that was on the ‘coarser’ scale of a 2km square.  So, the records are a useful update for the 21st century and, in due course, will be uploaded to the BSBI’s national database.  

Methodology

The recording form we use distinguishes ‘common’ and ‘noteworthy’ species, the latter earning an eight-figure grid reference.  The proportions were 78:24, a higher than usual share of ‘noteworthy’ species, which reflects the number of ‘weeds’ and garden escapes in this more built-up part of the Assynt landscape.  It is often difficult to distinguish escapes from ‘throw-outs’, so the latter are logged if well-established. 

From the Medical Centre…

We will summarise our finds from north to south.  The small fern maidenhair spleenwort Asplenium trichomanes is locally abundant on some old walls in Lochinver, those of the Medical Centre being a good example (photo 2).  The sub-species found there, quadrivalens, with closely-packed pinnae (photo 3), is lime-loving, so mortared walls are a favoured habitat.  We found just two plants of its relative black spleenwort A. adiantum-nigrum on an old building elsewhere in the village.  

The riverside margins of the Surgery Carpark and nearby wall-tops harbour self-sown saplings of ash, elder, hawthorn, holly, rowan and sycamore, and also red-berried bushes of himalayan cotoneaster C. simonsii, which is widespread in Assynt.  The close-mown grassland around the War Memorial contained the shiny blotched leaves of lesser celandine Ficaria verna, whose bright yellow flowers will appear in the spring.  A brief sortie into the small valley behind the old Post Office provided a range of moorland and crag species, with the bonus of the largest British lichen, tree lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria, on an old ash tree.  

…To the Church Carpark

There were some surprises on the rocks on the seaward side of the Church Carpark, in the form of three brightly-berried shrubs, which may have originated as garden throw-outs or been bird-sown, and are now well-established.  At the northern end there is a patch of the wiry stems of Chenault’s coralberry Symphoricarpos x chenaultii (photos 4-5), with white berries flushed and spotted in pink.  It is a hybrid between two species originally introduced into cultivation from North America.

Nearby is a large clump of another of many cotoneasters, originally from the Far East, that have escaped from cultivation all over the British Isles (photos 6-7).  With shiny evergreen leaves and single red berries, it keys out to round-leaved cotoneaster C. rotundifolius, from the Himalayas.

At the southern end of the carpark, just beside the church, we found a bush of prickly heath Gaultheria mucronata, which originated in Chile (photos 8-9).  It has really plump red berries hanging below the stems (photo 10).  None of these three shrubs has previously been noted in Assynt, or indeed West Sutherland as a whole.

Not far away, at the base of the roadside walls of the church, there was a shiny ribbon of tiny heart-shaped leaves (photos 11-12), which proved to be seedlings of scurvygrass Cochlearia officinalis.This was an unexpected site for this essentially maritime species, although only a short distance from the shore-line where it normally grows.  It will produce four-petalled white flowers slightly later in the year.

South from the Village Hall 

Waste ground around the Village Hall Carpark bore tall fruiting stems of the tall biennial great mullein Verbascum thapsus (photos 13-14), with scattered, small, woolly rosettes (photo 15), which will produce this year’s flower spikes.  It is a rare plant in Assynt.

Woodland to the south, along the road up to the Inver Lodge Hotel, has a good range of native trees, including hazel and grey willow.  Looking up the hill on our reconnaissance, we spotted a hoodie harassing a magnificent sea eagle.  Just around the corner, in a paddock sporting a lively metal sculpture of a unicorn, there is a good thicket of blackthorn, a shrub usually associated with human habitation in Assynt. 

We then crossed the road to the eastern banks of the Culag River, adding the ancient wych elms there to our tally (photo 16), walked over the Bridge and up the River to the huge sessile oak on its western bank (a former Champion Tree).   Returning, we detoured through the Games Field, crags along the southern edge of which added species such as honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum and great woodrush Luzula sylvatica.   

Culag Gardens and beyond

On Boxing Day, we had taken a quick look at Culag Gardens.  This provided little new, but at its entrance one of several large old trees (ash, holly or rowan) had shed, in recent gales, a large clump (20cm across) of the largest of the shrubby strap lichens Ramalina fraxinea (photo 17).  NBN only maps two records of this from Assynt, at Glencanisp Lodge (NC1122) and the Altnacealgach Hotel (NC2610), although we have seen it in a couple of other places.  

We added further species to our list from the rip-rap behind the metal safety fence which stretches from the Culag River up to the Church.  This is well-vegetated in places, with a mixture of native species, garden escapes and throw-outs.  They include self-sown bushes of broom Cytisus scoparius and buddleja B. davidii (photo 18), and a wide selection of small perennials such as herb-robert Geranium robertianum and feverfew Tanacetum parthenium, with its aromatic leaves (photo 19).  The palmate leaves of a relative of the former, dove’s-foot cranesbill G. molle were also found in grassland at the northern end of the Church Carpark; it is an uncommon plant of local coastal grasslands. 

Both the day of the Plant Hunt and our earlier reconnaissance were calm and sunny, a pleasant surprise at the end of an often overcast and rainy month, with some serious gales.  We enjoyed the challenge of naming plants in the middle of winter, from bare twigs, old fruiting stems and winter-green rosettes.  And who would have thought that so much of interest and beauty could be found in the close at hand and everyday?  

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards 

All photos by Ian Evans; some taken on a later frosty day

A correction.

In the 4th paragraph of the section entitled Medical Centre to Church Carpark, I said that the large clump of cotoneaster at the northern end of the Carpark ‘keys out to the round-leaved cotoneaster C. rotundifolius.’  

Given that this is a challenging genus to identify, I sent a specimen down to the B.S.B.I. referee, Jeanette Fryer, in Hampshire.  I had a very helpful letter back from her later in January, illustrated with photographs, saying that the specimen ‘had been very interesting.  These small ones belonging to the section Microphylli are always difficult and this one is no exception.  I have had a good look at it and run it through the key a few times and have come to the decision that it could be the elusive C. microphyllus itself.’ 

This species, the small-leaved cotoneaster, is stated in the recent Plant Atlas 2020 (B.S.B.I., 2023, p. 303) to be ‘formerly over-recorded’ and ‘very rare in the wild’.  It is another native of the Himalayas, introduced into cultivation in Britain in 1824, and there are no previous records from West Sutherland.  One of the main differences from C. rotundifolius is the shape and colour of the petals, a character not readily ascertainable on the last day of the year. 

Ian M. Evans

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