Wildflower Obsessions On Holiday In The Hebrides

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.


10 thoughts on “Wildflower Obsessions On Holiday In The Hebrides

  1. J > Well, they do grow on our doorstep!! We’re pleased you had such a good time in the islands. We’ve been having a wonderful summer: no, not blue skies and hot weather day after day, but the perfect combination of warmth, moisture, sunshine, gentle breezes : not every day, but overall. That said, we’re pretty much house-bound today, as it is wet and windy and horrible. BTW: its not sheep that are the problem, when it comes to diversity, but uncontrolled grazing. Without grazing, the vegetation would (in most cases) become too long for orchids, and soon scrub trees would colonize the ground. Each year, during the orchid season, we rest a different field, and that way we preserve the diversity. It’s called conservation grazing – which has to be managed to be meaningful.


    1. You lucky people! The weather was great – some sunshine every day, and the rain never seemed to stay for long. It’s obviously a landscape that thrives on the traditional management practices, instead of forcing every last ounce of productivity out of the soil at the expense of everything else, and long may it continue! We’re planning a holiday to Harris and the Uists next summer, so perhaps we’ll call in to your garden to see it for real…!


  2. Wowser what a holiday!
    We saw a common Twayblade at Calke Abbey this year amongst a carpet of common and fragrant orchids. An amazing sight, more orchids than I’ve ever seen before and a most beautiful aroma in the air from the fragrants.
    Also a bee orchid on the playing fields opposite our house you may remember from way back when!


      1. Insider info requested…..what to do with tomatilloes? Got some at Calke yesterday, looking at a salsa recipe but maybe you have something exciting to do with them?


      2. I’ve never actually cooked with tomatilloes – they’re one crop that I’ve often had in the back of my mind to grow, so perhaps next year! You’ll have to let me know what you think of them…. Riverford sell them, so might be worth searching their website for recipes?


      3. Thanks! Might try their tomatillo,mango and coriander sauce with mexican tomato rice. Will let you know how it goes! Currently inundated with apples and rhubarb. Rhubarb cordial, apple, date and ginger chutney and apple, ginger and cinnamon jam today’s activities.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t got tired of the orchids yet. I feel priviledged when they return each year. Definately need some resting from grazing for most of ‘mine’, although I worry that the trees will eventually shade them out there’s no sign of that yet.

    Liked by 1 person

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