It’s something of a culture shock to return back to the noise and bustle of a city after two glorious weeks in the Outer Hebrides! The allotment has more or less looked after itself – there was lots to pick and lots to tidy upon our return, and I’ll write about that in more detail in a future post. For now though, I’d like to dwell on the memories of wild orchids, red clover and harebells on the Isle of Barra. I find myself becoming increasingly obsessed with wild plants (and their identities) – I love all wildlife, it is a joy to see gannets, seals, dolphins, but glimpses of these animals is often so fleeting. Plants, on the other hand, don’t tend to run or fly away (in my experience, at least). You can photograph them up close, smell the flowers, touch the leaves and observe the subtle differences between individual plants of the same species (provided you’re not too bothered by the funny looks from passers-by….).
If you’re at all interested in wild flora then visiting somewhere like the Hebrides in Summertime is sure to stoke your interest further. The islands are famous for the ‘machair’ – one of the rarest habitats in Europe. Machair means ‘low lying fertile plain’, – the soil contains a large proportion of calcerous shell sand which gets blown up the dunes, and the land has traditionally been fertilised with seaweed and grazed seasonally by cattle which keep the grasses in check. This traditional management (without artificial fertilisers, which would simply leach straight out of the sandy soil) results in the most ridiculous carpets of wildflowers in summer. In most cases the striking thing is not that the plant species are particularly rare – it’s that it’s rare to see such abundance – fragrant carpets of red clover, wild carrot, eyebright, harebells, ribwort plantain, knapweed and yellow rattle (an important plant for any wildflower meadow as it parasitises grass), buzzing with insects and occasionally interspersed with wild orchids. It’s the orchids, more than any other plant, that really had me obsessed (an obsession inherited from my Dad, funnily enough), so I thought I’d share a few of my finest specimens:
Heath Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata)
This enormous example was seen on the island of Mingulay, which was abandoned by its last inhabitants in 1912 and is now under ownership of the National Trust. There are no sheep on the island, which perhaps explains why the orchids are so big!
Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
These were probably the most abundant orchid on Barra during our two weeks (late July/early August). The photo was taken on the machair just outside our cottage!
Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride)
Quite a hard one to spot, but I found several of these on the neighbouring island of Vatersay. The individual florets are supposed to look like a little frog up close….
Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)
A really pretty flower, most these were just finishing by the time we arrived.
Common Twayblade (Neottia ovata)
I only saw one of these in the whole two weeks. All orchids are relatively slow growing, relying upon a symbiotic relationship with mycorrizhal fungi to gain the nutrition they need, but the common twayblade takes it to the extreme – it can take four years from germination to produce a leaf and as long as fifteen years before it flowers. It might not be bright and showy, but I was pretty excited about this one, much to the bemusement of everyone else!
….Wouldn’t it be nice to have these plants growing literally on your doorstep? Alas, I’ve yet to see any pop up in the allotment so it’s back to keeping on top of the bindweed.