Dactylorhiza purpurella

Wild flower of the week

& In flower now

There is always an interesting plant to see in Scotland.

Thanks to Stan da Prato for all of his hard work in producing the information and images that go into these posts.


Autumn Colour

In the recent edition of the Caley Newsletter,  David Knott mentioned that the chance of a spectacular display of autumn colour in our trees and shrubs has increased because of the weather conditions that we have had this year. But have you ever wondered why or how the leaves change colour?  Stan da Prato explains all:

Autumn colours are the result of chemical reactions that occur as the leaves of deciduous trees die. In summer, leaves produce food from sunlight through green chlorophyll.  As summer ends, the cooler weather and shorter days trigger them to stop producing chlorophyll.  Other pigments become prominent.  Carotenoid turns the leaf golden and anthocyanin produces red.

Different species vary in the amount of these pigments. Interestingly, British native trees tend to turn gold rather than red.  Many of the most colourful autumn leaves are on imported trees such as American and Japanese maples. The colours are not the same each year. Windy weather shortens the show. Settled weather with cool nights prolongs it.    A dry summer increases anthocyanin production, leading to better reds and bronzes.


In Flower Now – Gentians

The intense blue trumpets of gentians are one of the glories of the autumn garden. These grow well in Scotland as they dislike alkaline soils. They require good levels of moisture during the warm summer months so be prepared to water them in a dry spell. If your soil is very heavy, they will benefit from added organic matter to help open up the drainage – if this is not possible consider growing in ericaceous compost in a container. Some of the new varieties have been developed for container growing as they are more compact than the older ones which trail.

Most are forms or hybrids of Gentiana sino-ornata first introduced from Yunnan in China by George Forrest in 1904. The species is itself very variable. More difficult to grow is the sky-blue G. farreri named after the well-known English rock gardener.   Some of the sino-ornata hybrids are more vigorous pale blue types e.g. ‘Devonhall’. Several white cultivars are now available.  You sometimes see forms with blue and white stripes, but these seem to be unstable. ‘Eugens Allerbester’ is a double but an acquired taste!

Any with the word ‘Silk’ in their names were bred at Aberconwy nursery in north Wales by Keith Lever as was ‘Gorau Glass’ (best blue in Welsh). The have introduced a very attractive sky-blue with some farreri parentage named ‘Silken Star’. This has been derived from the plant Alec Duguid introduced when at Edrom Nursery.  The Berrybank series as well as  more recent ones with Scottish place names were raised by Ian McNaughton and have been distributed by Macplants. ‘Balmoral’ and ‘Braemar’ both flower earlier than most. His introduction named after the Caley has proved to be a very floriferous late variety. ‘Oban’ is a nice white one. One of the newer ones, ‘Troon’, is a deep blue, almost purple. By winter the plants turn brown and the old foliage can be taken off – new growth will push up in spring. These plants usually divide easily into small thongs which can then be grown on.



Heather is one of the best known flowers in upland Scotland. The most widespread is Calluna vulgaris, sometimes called Ling Heather. Its leaves are close in on the stems.  Look also for two species of Erica: E. cinerea, the Bell Heather and E. tetralix, the Cross Leaved Heath. In both the leaves stick outwards. Erica cinerea prefers drier ground, with Erica tetralix usually found in damp patches. All three species have many cultivated forms. Riverside Park in Perth has a new and very extensive collection of heathers.

On the open moor, heather is managed by controlled burning. This results a patchwork of areas with plants in different stages of growth, providing food and cover for Red Grouse and other moorland birds.


Rosebay Willowherb

The tall, mauve flower spikes of rosebay willow herb signal that midsummer is here. They can often be seen in thick stands in woodland clearings, roadside verges, grassland and waste ground. A very successful coloniser, it has increased from being a scarce woodland plant to its present abundance. This started with the railways as it readily colonised the burnt stretches of banking which resulted from the sparks flying from steam locomotives. A single plant produces up to 20,000 wind borne seeds which can land and germinate miles from the parent. It readily travels up railway lines, the seeds blown along by the turbulence from trains. Rosebay took hold in London just after World War 2 when it invaded waste ground, often ground that was bombed in German air-raids. It became the county flower of London. Its ability to colonise land that has been burnt led to the name Fireweed.

As it has a different flower structure to the other willow herbs it is now Chamerion angustifolium and not Epilobium angustifolium.


Papaver somniferum

The opium poppy Papaver somniferum is a distinctive annual, with grey green heart-shaped leaves. The colourful flowers vary from often white to mauve, but garden selections may be in shades of red, pink or purple. Double forms are available.  The seed head enlarges after flowering and can make a decorative feature in a flower arrangement.  This is the part from which sap is extracted to make heroin (illegally) but also a series of important pain relieving drugs including morphine. Common pain killers such as Co-codamol contain a mix of opium and paracetamol.

Papaver somniferum

The plant seems to be of Mediterranean origin but has long been established here. It readily seeds around and often appears on disturbed ground including gardens where it was not intentionally sown. It is perfectly legal to grow this species in gardens in the UK.as large numbers are required to produce drugs.  It is grown under license on undisclosed farms for the pharmaceutical industry. The seeds are often used to decorate buns and cakes.



Meconopsis is always a key feature at Gardening Scotland.   It is one of those groups of plants with star quality. Though best known to gardeners as the big blue Himalayan poppies   there are other types. They come from upland areas in China, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan so   do well in many parts of Scotland though are not so happy in the drier eastern parts of the country. Usually thought of as woodland plants in this country, in the wild they are often found in alpine meadows or even scree slopes but always with adequate moisture in the growing season.

The big  blue flowers of  Meconopis baileyi/betonicifolia and  hybrids  are what attract  most gardeners. Note that there has been considerable confusion over the names of these – for guidance look at the excellent website of the Meconopsis Group.   All meconopsis like cool, humus rich soils with semi shade in the south of the UK. Some are infertile and have to be propagated by division while of those that set seed, such as the very popular cultivar Lingholm, divisions are best so you get   a good form. Meconopsis can be short lived if conditions are not to their liking. Many enthusiasts consider Slieve Donard their favourite classic big blue poppy. Others blues  include  the early and very large Mophead, the slightly purple Barney’s Blue.   Other colour forms in this group include Hensol Violet while Marit is the best white.

The very tall M. napaulensis has attractive rosettes which eventually throw up a giant red or yellow flower spike then die after setting  seed.  The smaller red  M. punicea is also monocarpic but  the duller red M. x cookie Old Rose is perennial. M. quintuplinervia is a very attractive small species with lilac blue flowers sometimes called the harebell poppy.

Meconopsis Marit

Meconopsis Slieve Donard

Meconopsis Old Rose

Meconopsis napaulensis

Meconopsis Mophead

Meconopsis Lingholm







To obtain any of these plants go to a specialist nursery.

There is one meconopsis that is very easy to grow and can become a weed.  Meconopsis cambrica, the yellow Welsh poppy.  It is native to parts of the UK though very widespread in gardens where an orange form also occurs.   Some botanists now classify it in a different genus, Papaver. Be warned: only plant it where you don’t mind if it self-seeds.

Meconopsis cambrica


Wild Flower of the Week – Cow Parsley and Hemlock

There are several wild flowers with white or, occasionally, yellow flowers held in upright umbels.  Although the Umbelliferae have now been renamed Apiaceae by botanists, umbellifer is still a useful English word to describe these plants. The commonest is Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris (see picture above).  As the name indicates, it likes light shade in open woodland although it is also frequent along hedgerows and banks. It is a short lived but vigorous grower which has increased due to enrichment of many verges by fertiliser run off from fields.

 Conium maculatum

Children often used the hollow stems and seeds of Cow Parsley as pea shooters. This would not be a good idea with the umbellifer shown in the photograph above which is Hemlock, Conium maculatum.  One of the most poisonous plants in Europe, it was used in the past as a method of execution – most famously with Socrates. It likes disturbed ground and damp soil, so is often found on field margins or by the coast. It tends to have a rank smell and the stems have purple blotches, but these may not be visible unless you look closely. The family also contains many important garden vegetables and herbs such as carrot, parsnip, fennel and parsley.


In Flower Now – Clematis montana

Clematis montana has white flowers, though it is most often seen as one of its pink forms.  It is a vigorous and easy to grow climber although, as with any clematis, it needs some support to get up a wall. As it is so vigorous it can easily cover an ugly shed (very useful) or climb a tree. It is much less likely to be affected by disease than the large-flowered clematis.  Pruning is only needed to keep it within bounds and should be done as soon as the flowers fade to allow it to make new growth for next spring’s blooms.

Good forms of C. montana var. rubens include ‘Elizabeth’, which has a good pink colour and a slight scent, while ‘Tetrarose’ is a deeper mauve-pink shade with bronze foliage. C montana var. grandiflora has very large white flowers and like most cultivars is scented.  There are double forms and some with twisted petals – an acquired taste!


Prunus spinosa – Blackthorn

Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, is distinctive in early spring with white flowers against black branches that do not yet have leaves. The plant typically suckers to form thorny thickets.

Later in the year Blackthorn carries purple fruit which give its alternative name of Sloe. Sloe gin is traditionally made from fruit picked in autumn after the first frost. Each berry is pricked – traditionally with a thorn from the bush- and a jar is filled half way with the berries. Gin is added along with sugar and further flavour comes from cloves or cinnamon.  There is a well-known brand of cider is named after Blackthorn, but it is made from apples. Blackthorn is also traditionally used for making walking sticks.

The Cherry Plum or Myrobalan, Prunus cerasifera, starts to flower even earlier than Prunus spinosa but has some leaves on greener twigs. It is often used in hedges and there is a purple leaved form which is common in gardens. The fruits of the Cherry Plum are red.


Wildflower of the Week – Wild Daffodils

The yellow trumpets of daffodils brighten spring in gardens, on roadsides and in parks during March and April. But these are usually larger garden varieties. Our native daffodil is smaller than most garden varieties. It was known as the ‘Lent lily’ or ‘Easter lily’ since it often blooms then, though botanically it Is not a true lily. Once abundant in parts of England and picked for markets, these wild flowers are now much rarer, having declined during the 19th century.

In Scotland they can be seen in Falls of Clyde Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve. Most are Narcissus pseudonarcissus with narrow, grey-green leaves and pale yellow petals surrounding a darker yellow trumpet giving a two-tone look. Though William Wordsworth wrote about ‘A host of golden daffodils’ the Welsh Tenby daffodil N. p. obvallaris is more truly gold than the Lake District flowers.

Wild daffodils are relatively short and form clumps, carpeting the ground. The plants are poisonous and therefore resistant to deer and rabbits.

The Latin name comes from the story of Narcissus who had many admirers, including the nymph Echo. Angered at his refusal she made him fall in love with his own reflection so he wasted away until he died. The Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer wrote in ‘The Golden Bough’ (1890) that the myth originated from the belief that man’s soul is situated in his reflection. Hades the Greek god of the underworld captured Persephone as she was picking daffodils in the Elysian Fields. Daffodils were associated with death and used in wreaths and planted on graves.In the Christian faith it is linked to the Virgin Mary and is even occasionally referred to as Mary’s Star.

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