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Ken Butler's Plant Pages

Caithness Field Club

Some Recent Plant Records
K Butler

The last few years have, seen a lot of improvement in our knowledge of which plants grow in Caithness. This is due partly to intensive support work in the area by the Nature Conservancy and the rest due to amateur interest.

Garden Escapes
One night wonder what value there is in recording the escape of garden plants into wild places, yet some of them join the wild flowers successfully -and become part of the natural vegetation. The way they achieve this can be interesting. One such, is the blue speedwell, Veronica filifornis, first recorded by Miss V. Hewison in 1973. It was virtually unknown in Britain fifty years ago but is now widespread in short grass in several places in the county. I wonder when it first arrived? A firmly established shrub is Cotoneaster microrophyllus recorded by Miss E. R. Bullard in 1973 then to be found in a number of' quarry spoil heaps. Colonies of Mugwort (Cruciata laevipes = Galium cruciata), Geranium versicolor, Chicoriun, Tolmeia menziesii, Inula helenium and Snow-in summer (Cerastium tomentosum) have been recorded from dumps, roadside verges, spoil heaps and other waste places. Lupinus nootkatensis in the Dunnet plantation is a different case. It originates from NE Asia, and NW America, and was replaced as a garden favourite at the turn of the century by the modern Lupinus polphyllus varieties. It is unlikely to be modern garden escape and is perhaps a forester's introduction of that garden escape which established itself in the river gravels of the central highlands about a hundred years ago, if you see what I mean.

The new plants which come among the native species are not all from the garden, Linaria vulgaris grows by the railway line near Thurso station (records by J. H. Gunn and V.H. ) and is common as traveller on trains apparently. The Sticky Groundsel Senecio viscosus noted by E.R.B. and J.M.G. in 1973 is also coming into the county via the railway lino and its further progress will be watched with interest Sisimbrium officinale is a weed of waste places in more southerly parts and its appearance in a Thurso contractor's yard (E.R.B. and others 1974) is an event to re-examine after a few years to see what progress it makes. The reseeding of some areas around Thurso harbour led, in 1974, to a number of unusual aliens which must have been present in the seed used. Few of them will survive and indeed most perished during their first brief summer.

The common gorse, or whin, Ulex europaeus is not a native to the county and is thought to have been introduced to give winter feed for horses and shelter to livestock. There is a single record of the Dwarf Gorse Ulex minor having been found in the neighbourhood of Ben Alisky in the early years of the century but it has not been found. However, the Western Gorse Ulex gallii has been recently noted growing at Mid-Clyth (E.R.B. 1974) and at Achavanich (J.K.B. 1974) in well established colonies. The Gorse is easily observed in October when it is in full flower while the Common Gorse flowers from about January onwards. Further records of the Western Gorse would be welcomed by J M Gunn (Reay 205).

Native Species
The recording of the native species of the county began about two hundred years ago and you would think that such keen observers as Robert Dick, C. B. Crompton and Rev. Lillie would have recorded most things between them in their lifetime. Some of the new finds can be. explained by advances of knowledge, but others such as the little filmy fern Hymenophyllum wilsonii, the elusive sedge Carex lasiocarpa and the Holly Fern Polystichium lonchitis have been waiting for the practised eye to pick then out in the right habitat.

Quite a few plants have been recorded before but the exact locality was not recorded. One of the best is the refinding of the Royal Fern Osmunda regalis by Miss Bullard in 1974. Robert Dick found it first at Dunnet Head and later he transplanted some to his secret fernery near Reay. His friend, Robert Brown said "This fern grows plentifully on the rocky cliffs of Dunnet Head facing the sea; but in such very inaccessible situations that specimens can only be reached by means of a ladder" (Remarks on the Flora of Caithness by Robert Brown of Campster, Trans. Edinburgh Bot. Soc. 1863 p.8). It has not been refound in these places in spite of some careful searches, but was then discovered elsewhere growing in satisfactory quantity.

When C. B. Crampton was the local geological surveyor he made meticulous and strikingly accurate notes of the wild plants that he saw. Many of the rarest ones have been refound simply by following his descriptions leading to modern records of the Goldilocks Buttercup Ranunculus auricomus. Corydalis claviculata and the Bearded Couch-grass Agropyron caninum.

A close inspection of the eastern seaboard was also rewarding with records for the first tine of the woodland grasses Melica nutans and Milium effusum and of a spectacular array of early spring flowers on the cliffs in the area around Badbea.

I am sure it isn't over yet, because there is still much to discover about our county. For instance there has been no work done on the recording of the wild roses which need some special devotion to collect samples and get then properly named. I am sure that if somebody wishes to have a try it will be most rewarding.

Published April 1976 Bulletin