|Some Caithness Grasses
J K Butler
Holy Grass - Hierochloe odorata
This is an aromatic grass which is distinguished by being very early flowering - it is usually to be found from early April onwards, when it is prominent among the still dormant grasses around it. It is fairly frequently found in continental Europe, but is very rare in Britain. It was first found in Angus in 1812 by a remarkable man George Don (1764-1814). He was an exceedingly enthusiastic and able planthunter and gardener who took the hills of central Scotland by storm and established the worth of Ben Lawers, Glen Clova, Caenlochan and other superb alpine plant localities. However he sometimes mixed up his garden plants and his specimenS from the mountains,, so that other botanists became suspicious of all his records, and some, including Holy Grass, were removed to the 'doubtful' category of the London Catalogue of British Plants. Robert Dick of Thurso first found the plant on the banks of the Thurso river around 1834 and his knowledge of it became known to Professor J. H. Balfour who was Professor of Botany at Edinburgh from 1845-1879. Balfour persuaded Dick to write a short paper which was read before the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. The paper is reproduced in Smiles "Life of Robert Dick". This discovery became well known and plant collectors in the following years showed specimens sent to them by Dick at exhibition meetings. Through the Botanical Exchange Club Dick received rare plants in return and he placed them in the herbarium which still exists in Thurso Museum. Thurso river remained for some time the only site in Britain, though it is said that Dick also found it on the banks of the Forss river. Eventually, in 1899 another site was discovered in Kirkcudbright (G. McConachie. B.S. Edin. XXI (1899) xxvi) and later sites were found in Renfrew, Lough Neagh and recently in Orkney. Many of George Don's finds were eventually verified, but Holy Grass has never been rediscovered in Angus.
The "Lapland Reed" - Calamagrostis scotica
Robert Dick was first to notice (probably in 1863) a plant in the Loch of Durran near Castletown which he called "The Lapland Reed". He sent a specimen to Professor Balfour who named it Calamagrostis stricta, a plant known from other sites in Scotland, and widespread in northern and central Europe. Professor Balfour may well have been right, because Calamagrostis stricta grows in the Loch of Durran, as well as the loch of St. John, Watten and Mey. However Dick disagreed with Balfour, and insisted that his plant was different - in calling it the Lapland Reed he perhaps thought Calamagrostis lapponica should be the correct name. The specimen was reported in Annals of Scottish Natural History, 252, 1892 by Balfour.
During a tour of northern Scotland in 1902 Messrs. Schoolbred and Druce refound Calamagrostis plants in the Loch of Durran. Both men were field botanists of the highest calibre. and Dr. George Clarence Druce (1850-1932) in particular being familiar with Calacagrostis and having noticed a strange variety in Perthshire which he now discovered to be in Loch Durran as well as the normal Calmagrostis strieta. The Perthshire plant became extinct due to drainage and Druce declared the Caithness plant to be sufficiently different from all others that it should be a separate species Calamagrostis scotica. It first appears in 1928 in the second edition of "British Plant List". Almost all authoritative reviews of the genus Calamagrostis has subsequently upheld its status as a species. It is still not known from any other place in the world, so its continued existence depends on the water table of the Loch of Durran being kept as at present. Robert Dick's disagreement with Professor Balfour's naming of the plant was perhaps justified.
Northern Salt-marsh Grass (Puccinellia Capillaris)
There are no significant patches of ordinary salt-marsh in Caithness, so the salt-marsh grass genus Puccinellia in not well represented. We do, however, have one species which chooses to grow prostrate over rocks and harbour walls around our coast. Its presence and distinct characteristics became known over the past 20 years and remained something of a mystery. For a time it was named Puccinellia distans var. prostrate until Dr. C. E. Hubbard eventually recognised it as the species Puccinellia capillaris. The revision of the whole genus Puccinellia in "Flora Europea vol. 5", recently published, reduces the plant once more to the status of a subspecies - Puccinellia distans ssp. borealis.
Several of the early observations of the plant were in Caithness and Orkney,, and it is now known from Shetland, Sutherland and Fife as well. and in Caithness it is found frequently all around the coast. It is one of the many plants we have in common with Iceland, Scandinavia and the Baltic coast.
in October 1981 Bulletin