Sunday 8 February 2015

Botanical Book at Bedtime: Part One

Ok botanists, grab your mugs of cocoa and gather round the fire - it's time for the first installment in Peter Llewellyn's Botanical Book at Bedtime. Are you sitting comfortably? Then he'll begin:

Pedicularis sylvatica
Image: P. Llewellyn
Treasure hunting in the Wester Ross uplands.
Part 1: The Plan

"One of my botanical friends when asked if he would like to go on a botanical jaunt will usually ask:
“Is it really stupid and hopeless?”
If the answer is “Yes” he always says “Let’s go then”. I don’t know if there’s a Royal Society for Outrageous Botanical Optimism but if there is, he should be president.

On a meeting to see the Teesdale flora, three amateur botanists, Peter, Janet and myself were chatting about the stories of a rare plant only to be found above the arctic circle in such places as Northern Norway yet apparently also known from one relatively obscure Scottish mountain. The stories from those who claimed to have found Diapensia lapponica (Diapensia) always had a mythical quality about them. The plant is to be found not near the top but at the very top of this mountain growing on bare rock. 

Empetrum nigrum
Image: P. Llewellyn
There is, according to legend, one clump which you find by going to the trigpoint, and taking eleven steps towards Greenland and finding the large rock. It’s on the north face. It just would have to be on the north face wouldn’t it? Finding this plant at its best is complicated by the fact that it grows at the top of a western Corbett (mountains above 2,500 feet but below 3,000 feet in height) where the summit is more often shrouded in mist than not. 

It doesn’t flower except in full sun and the flowering period is short: only from mid May to mid-June. Bearing in mind that at the summit of Munros and Corbetts the snow will quite often remain beyond the first of May, you have the perfect conditions for a stupid and quite hopeless botanical expedition.

So we just had to do it.

Discovered as late as 1951, the UK population of Diapensia fascinates many botanists because of the remoteness and inaccessibility of its habitat and the fact that it was found relatively recently not by a botanist but by a bird watcher: C.F. Tebutt. It is still only known from the summit ridge of a single mountain at 2,815 feet near Glenfinnan a small settlement at the head of Loch Shiel.

Viola riviniana
Image: P. Llewellyn
It's always better to travel in company in the hills than alone and soon the party planning the most hopeless venture of the year had become three elderly Wild Flower Society and BSBI members with five other interested Scottish friends together with Bridie the Lurcher. So for success we needed a morning of good climbing weather, the right time of year, good navigation skills, an exact location for this one clump, plenty of energy and an afternoon of summer sunshine on top of a remote Scottish mountain in early June.

Easy peasy.

Our group was led by Janet's husband Neil, an experienced mountain walker who, by way of a warm-up, had strolled 15 miles with friends in the Cairngorms the day before.

Vaccinium myrtillus
Image: P. Llewellyn
When we arrived at the Glenfinnan car park the cloud base was well below 2,000 feet so if it stayed at that height there was no chance of seeing open flowers even if we found the one and only clump - assuming we'd guessed correctly about the flowering period. The leaves of Diapensia lapponica are also easily confused with other plants, so we really did need to see the plant in flower. At first we found some predictable sub-montane and lowland plants such as Viola riviniana (Common Dog-violet), Empetrum nigrum (Crowberry), Pedicularis sylvatica (Lousewort) and Vaccinium myrtillus (Blaeberry) but really the ascent had barely started..."

Will Peter and his intrepid companions make it up to the mountaintop? Have they got the flowering period right? And are they - not to mention Bridie the Lurcher - actually completely barking? 

Tune in next Sunday evening for part two of the Hunt for the Elusive Diapensia!

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