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.



Holly is strongly associated with Christmas, featuring on many a Christmas card. With its spines and blood red berries, the plant had religious significance to early Christians.  Prior to that, the Celts held the holly and the oak as the two most important trees and the Romans featured holly in their Saturnalia events.

Most holly trees are either male or female; important to know, as only the female plants carry berries. Some garden forms are better than others. ‘JC vanTol’  and ‘Pyramidalis’,both varieties of Ilex aquifolium,  are both self-fertile and good for berries but do have rather plain leaves.  Contrary to legend, a good berry crop does not mean the tree can anticipate a hard winter but, rather, reflects the amount of sun earlier in the season. Variegated hollies tend to have fewer berries. One variegated holly named ‘Golden Queen’ is, confusingly, male!

Holly, along with other native plants, such as ivy, were used as decoration in the home but are less so now that other plants, such as bright red poinsettias, are available.

Robins, which used to be called Red-breasts, are also often seen on Christmas cards, possibly as Victorian postmen wore red jackets.  In winter all Robins sing to defend individual territories, so ‘Cock Robin’ may actually be a hen. Some of the robins appearing in Scotland in winter will have crossed the North Sea earlier in the autumn.


In Flower Now – Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’


Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is probably the most widely planted of its group. It is already in flower which will last throughout the winter depending on the severity of the weather. The flowers start pink, fade to white and have a striking scent. It makes an upright, deciduous  bush up to 10 feet tall and will grow in most soils. It is best planted against a background such as an evergreen that will show off the flowers and near a path to appreciate the scent. It is vigorous enough to stand cutting for indoor decoration where the scent will fill a room.

The cross was first made at Edinburgh Botanics in the 1930s between the species V. farreri and V. grandiflorum by Charles Lamont. It was repeated at Bodant in North Wales where ‘Dawn’ was the first hybrid to be named.  ‘Charles Lamont’ has brighter pink flowers while ‘Deben’ has pink buds with flowers that are white.


Sorbus aucuparia – Rowan

We are now well into autumn and rowans (Sorbus aucuparia) are laden with their red berries.  The tree is native to Britain. It is also known as the mountain ash because of its leaves which are similar to ash (Fraxinus excelsior), but the two species are not related. Mature trees can grow to 15m and live for up to 200 years. The seeds are dispersed by birds. Rowan is commonly found in the wild, particularly in the Highlands of Scotland, but it is also widely planted as a street or garden tree.

Flowers are borne in white clusters which develop into the scarlet berries. Each flower contains both male and female parts, so all rowans bear berries. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of a number of moths. Flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees and other pollinating insects, while the berries are a source of food for birds, especially blackbirds, other thrushes and occasionally waxwings.

The rowan has been associated with magic and witches. Its old Celtic name is ‘fid na ndruad‘, which means wizards’ tree. In Ireland it was planted near houses to protect them against spirits, and in Wales rowan trees were planted in churchyards. Cutting down a rowan was considered to bring bad luck in Scotland. In Greek mythology Hebe, the goddess of youth, dispensed ambrosia to the gods from her magical chalice. When she lost this cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover it. The drops of blood which the eagle shed in the fight with the demons fell to earth, where each of them turned into a rowan tree. In Norse mythology it was the tree from which the first woman was made (the first man being made from the ash).

Rowan’s old Gaelic name was Luis from which the place name Ardlui on Loch Lomond may derive. The more common Scots Gaelic name is caorunn (pronounced choroon, the ch as in loch), which crops up in numerous Highland place names such as Beinn Chaorunn. Rowan was also the clan badge of the Malcolms and McLachlans.

The rowan is sometimes used in furniture or craftwork. It was used for stirring milk to prevent it curdling, and as a pocket charm against rheumatism.  Rowan twigs were used for divining, particularly for metals. Rowan berries are edible; sour but rich in vitamin C and can be used to make a jelly. As well as wine, Scots made a strong spirit from the berries. Today rowan berry jelly is still made in Scotland and is traditionally eaten with game.

In gardens rowan can be susceptible to fireblight and may be affected by silver leaf disease. The berries of the native rowan attract birds which often strip them by early autumn; some gardeners prefer to plant Asian rowans with white, pink or yellow fruit as birds are less likely to eat them.


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.

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