19th September 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Found: a real favourite

, by , in

GRASS of Parnassus! I can’t believe it. What on earth is it doing here, on a 45 degree north facing slope in thin, dry, soil, exposed to the full fury of every north easterly gale, complete with drenching spray from the breaking, salt-laden waves? It seems impossible. But here it is, in loose drifts, the pure white, faintly green veined blooms scattered among tormentil, heather, self heal, sheep’s bit, Devil’s bit scabious and woodrush, Grass of Parnassus is growing in abundance on the north face of the hill overlooking Ling Ness.

The flower is a real favourite and I relish the rare triumphs of finding it, almost invariably among damp vegetation, in sheltered places.

Despite being relatively late in the season, there are still a whole lot of plant thrills to be had. For example, did you know that Bog asphodel smells of cloves? It was news to me. We found one small patch in a rather dry “wet” area and it was quite deliciously clovey, though you do need a whole cluster of the beautiful bronze-yellow, frilly, flowering spikes to get the full effect. Thyme is still flowering too here and there and I love those long, tangled skeins of soft, woolly stems and leaves.

Wild thyme isn’t as strongly aromatic as the garden varieties, but if you lift a strand and crush a few leaves hard between your fingers, there is no mistaking that sweet, tangy, Mediterranean scent. If you are lucky, you may occasionally find an exceptionally dark flowering individual, and even a white one. Mints are flowering too now and Shetland has several different wild ones. There’s a singularly deep purplish water mint in places in the Tingwall Valley and the flowers come in small purple balls at the tip.

In a few deep ditches however, and alongside some burns, there is a water mint that has tall spires of blue-purple flowers and much lighter green leaves. They take very easily from cuttings and you can build up a sizeable collection without the need to beg a root from someone, or having to start from seed. I used to think I might collect all the mint varieties, as a bairn, but I now know a nursery that grows literally dozens of different ones.

While in savoury mood, wild mushrooms seem to have been much less plentiful than usual this year. Field mushrooms, their big, horse mushroom cousins thrust up new paddock stool fruiting bodies every day somewhere about the banks or in the hill. Early risers get the best deal, as human beings aren’t the only creatures to enjoy them. Leave them too long and the sweet, juicy folds will soon be full of a range of hungry beetles and larvae.

Wax caps are flowering too, and there can be no more cheering and decorative sight than a stretch of rich, cropped grass, strewn with the jewel colours of crimson, citrine or orange meadow wax cap fungi, brighter than beads or billiard balls, they are something gladdening to look forward to as the days begin to shorten. If you are persistent, you may be lucky enough to see the extraordinary and rare mauve wax cap, with its drawn out, pointed cap and wavy, almost frilly margin. A real inspiration for illustrators of fairy tales. The first one I ever saw, in Dury, fooled me completely. I thought it was a plastic tulip, blown from a graveyard wreath.

Another delight just now is Devil’s bit scabious. In many places, especially un-grazed meadows and banks, the flowers are so profuse that the whole area looks misted over all purple and blue and mauve. Drifts of them are as transforming as the drifts of spring squill which stained the grassy hillsides back in spring. Blue seems a commoner flower coloured towards the end of the summer, I don’t know why. Maybe there are subtle scientific reasons for this.

Angelica is reaching its peak just now and the strong, bold, almost tree-like strands are in full flower. On a pre walk for the Shetland Field Studies Group walk round Noness next month, a group of us found a single angelica which was purple. Not just the flower was suffused with the rich shade, but the whole plant; stem, leaves and those swollen, wrap-around leaf bases too. It was an extraordinary sight. One of these giants has appeared in the garden, but I am not going to let it seed, as it will eventually take over the whole bed.

Angelica belongs to the umbelifer family, umbel meaning dome shaped, which is a feature of the flowering heads of the group. I suppose the word umbrella comes from the same root. The commonest members of this family in Shetland are the Hogweed and the Hedge or cow parsley. Pignut is an umbelifer too and has delicate, finely cut leaves. But there is a much rarer cousin, which few people have seen and some years ago it all but died out when one of the few sites it hung on to was destroyed.

Lesser water parsnip was growing in the Strand burn at a point which was to be dug up in a massive Tingwall Valley drainage effort. Just ahead of the diggers, a small party of rescuers got to work and transplanted a few clumps to burns further away down the valley. For some years it looked as though the attempt had failed. But a few weeks ago, a large colony of the plant was found growing strongly and it is now in full flower. A small step for conservation in Shetland, where there are many more flowers in danger, but at least it is a great leap for the Lesser water parsnip and all who live in or nibble her.

Jill Slee Blackadder