Wildflowers at the Crofthouse Museum.
There's a lot to smile about at the moment; we've just had the simmer dim (midsummer) where we enjoy 19 hours of daylight, but, more than that, the wildflowers have been putting on a tremendous show of colour this year.
Shetland is an excellent place to see wildflowers, much of the reason for this lies in the rocks beneath our feet and the unique geology that makes up the islands. Geologically complicated, Shetland's geological landscape varies hugely from place to place, with each area hosting a unique environment for the plants that grow. Sites such as the Keen of Hamar and Ronas Hill boast plants so rare, or endemic, in the case of the Keen of Hamar, that they can only be found in a few places across the globe.
But I'm not here to talk about our endemic or rare plants, that's for another blog (or a botanist), I'm here to talk about the wildflowers that have brought Shetland to life in a blaze of hot pinks, vibrant yellows and soft whites in the past few weeks.
My bairns playing in bog cotton at midsummer.
When I think about Shetland's wildflowers, Vagaland's poem Shetlan Gairden always comes to mind:
"My gairden rins for seventy miles
Fae Soombra Head ta Skaw;
Der no a brig fae isle ta isle,
Der no a gairden-waa.
Bit aa da wye fae Sooth ta Nort,
Fae Aest ta Wast fir miles
Ye'll fin da wild flooers growin ta mak
A gairdin o da Isles."
Red campion growing by the sea at the Knab in Lerwick. It can be seen all over Shetland at midsummer.
Red campion (Silene dioica)
Known locally as a clockie-flooer, red campion is at its best at the moment, blazing pink against the blue of sky and sea. Campion grows on coastal banks/cliffs and roadsides and can be seen all over Shetland. I grow it in my garden, although most Shetlanders, particularly of my parents' generation and beyond, would treat campion as a weed; I love it, and it always raises a smile.
Sea pinks forming a carpet of flower in Burra. Photo courtesy of Jim Gray.
Thrift (Armeria maritima)
Known commonly as sea pinks and, locally as banks flooers, these pale pink flowers seem to defy every rule of growing and thrive in the most unlikely of places; clinging to cliffs or exposed headlands. In some areas forming a carpet on the clifftops with the small pink flower heads bursting from their cushion-like base. June is the best time to see them in their full glory before the flowers fade away and wither.
Sea pinks and red campion of Spoose Holm, setting the island into a fire of colour.
The best campion and sea pinks I've seen so far this year is on Spoose Holm (pronounced spoos-um), the smallest of the Cheynies off Shetland's west coast. A tiny island, entirely uninhabited, it has been ablaze these past few weeks with the deep pink of the campion and pale pink of the thrift showing the best of nature's palette. It makes you wonder what the rest of Shetland would have looked like before grazing animals.
Northern marsh orchid in Shetland.
Northern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza majalis subsp. purpurella)
Still in the pinks, or have we moved into the purple territory? Anyway, the Northern marsh orchid, known locally as a curly Dodie is at its best right now. It's a distinctive plant with a proud flower. You'll find these all over but, be aware; most are hybrids, mixed with the more common, paler-pink spotted heath orchid. Orchids, hybrid or not, are most commonly found in damp marshy areas, although the one photographed was found on the roadside in very little soil.
Jon Dunn, who dedicated an entire book, Orchid Summer, to these plants talks about some of the uses for the heath spotted orchids in the past. Orchids were used to cure childhood burns in "a recipe for recovery that leavened Christian symbolism with a salty pagan touch."
For anyone interested in orchids and beautiful prose, Jon's book, published by Bloomsbury, is a great read.
A blanket of bog cotton in Shetland.
Cottongrass or hare's-tail (Eriophorum angustifolium)
Best viewed at sunrise or sunset when the light is low, highlighting the delicate cotton heads, we spent a wonderful evening among the bog cotton as the sun set to the west, and the mist rolled in over the hills, filtering the light to a soft glow.How much of this is old wives' tales, I dare not say, but we've certainly had an exceptional year with whole hillsides illuminated by the pure, silky white flowers that gently sway in the wind. Best viewed at sunrise or sunset when the light is low, highlighting the delicate cotton heads, we spent a wonderful evening among the bog cotton as the sun set to the west, and the mist rolled in over the hills, filtering the light to a soft glow.
The bog cotton takes its name from Lucki Minni, a witch of Shetland folklore, who lived in the hills and gathered oo (wool) from bog cotton to card and spin with ferns.
Bog cotton has had many uses over the years, including pillow stuffing, and in some areas, the stalks were used as candle wicks. During the First World War, it was collected, along with Sphagnum moss and sent off to the war effort, used in field dressings. Closer to home it was used in place of cotton wool for cleaning babies' bums.
Marsh marigolds and water iris (siggies) at Tangwick, Eshaness.
Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) and meadow buttercups (Ranunculus acris)
Marsh marigolds with their big yolky-yellow flowers and thick green kidney-shaped leaves are known locally as blugga flooers and grow in wet areas all around Shetland, particularly burns and bogs. Along with the more delicate flowers of the buttercup, or kraatae, that populate the meadows of Shetland's countryside, both give a rich palette of sunshine; enough to lift even the heaviest of hearts.
Birds-foot-trefoil lining the side of the road.
Both of these low-growing bright yellow flowers have given an incredible roadside show over recent weeks, forming carpets of yellow flower along the verges, framing the roads in brilliant colour. While birds-foot-trefoil favours dry grassy places, vetch likes cliffs and coastal areas, but both happily grow on dry roadside verges, meaning that every car journey is a botanical dream.
Birds-foot-trefoil, with its splash of orange, is locally known as da cock-an-da-hen.
Squill growing on the grassy cliff-tops at Peerie Spiggie, Dunrossness.
Spring squill (Scilla verna)
Known locally as grice ingan, the purple-blue star-shaped flowers of the squill deliciously scents coastal grasslands across the isles. Low-growing carpets set the landscape alive in bright swathes of blue. My favourite place to see squill is on the island of Oxna, where the scent meets you as you leave the boat. I can only imagine that the "scent o flooers in Papa" that Vagaland describes in his Sang o da Papa Men is squill.
Vagaland, Shetland's best-loved poet, also declares that the squill may be considered the emblem of Shetland – and I for one, can't think why anyone would want to argue with him on that point.
A Shetland verge.
I'd love to know what your favourite wildflower is and why. Comment below, or tag @shetlandwithlaurie in your wildflowers.
For anyone who is planning a visit to Shetland in summer, I would highly recommend getting a copy of David Malcolm's Shetland's Wild Flowers: A Photographic Guide.
As ever, until next time, stay happy and stay safe
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