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  • Writer's pictureHarris Brooker

Why Scottish Alpine Botany is the Best

Updated: Mar 19

Speyside Wildlife prides itself in showing our clients the best wildlife Scotland has to offer. So I thought I could give our readers an insight into the incredible flora of the Scottish Highlands which is just as varied as our birds and mammals and much less well known.

Having moved to the Cairngorms earlier this year to run our Evening Mammal Hide, I have been enjoying exploring each season as it comes. Scotland has many mountains - these mountains support plants that can’t survive anywhere else and the diversity took my breath recently. Here are some of the plants I particularly enjoyed discovering around our local area......

The Woolly Willow (Salix lanata) is one of Britain’s rarest montane willows and has broad leaves with a thick coat of white hairs. It's uncommon in the Cairngorms and I was relieved that it grew in an area which is easy to access. A Reserve in Perthshire called the Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve is trying to re-establish these willows in their native habitat. It's vulnerable to overgrazing by deer and sheep as well as climate change reducing snow cover. Snow cover protects the willows from grazing in the spring. These factors over the years have meant that the richness of the alpine plants are restricted to inaccessible ledges that haven’t been grazed and at higher altitudes where the temperature is more suitable.

There is a plant called a woolly willow in the middle of the picture. It has broad green leaves covered in white hairs and is growing low to the ground.
Woolly Willow (Salix Lanata) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)
There is a woolly willow in this picture showing its branches, leaves and thick bushy catkins (where its flowers are)
Woolly Willow showing its catkins (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

The thing to remember is that Scottish Alpine plant species are often quite spread out and their locations are not necessarily easy to get to. So when these plants are altogether in one place it really helps you get your eye in for what they look like.

Downy Willow (Salix lapponum) - this has much thinner leaves but is covered in white hairs. Alpine plants are often hairy to help retain heat during the cold, windy, wet days that mountains are so often exposed to. Together with Woolly Willow it likes to form 'grey thickets' along alpine streams and rivers, which would naturally be a feature of alpine vegetation in Northern Europe where grazing pressure is less. Downy Willow especially favours areas near running water but is quite rare in Scotland, especially in the Cairngorms National Park and in Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve there is a fenced area of it to keep out grazers.

These are the leaves from downy willow (Salix lapponum) with long and triangular leaves that are covered with white hairs, only the leaves are visible in this picture and they spread out at different angles
Downy Willow (Salix Lapponum) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)
This is a zoomed out picture of Downy Willow (Salix lapponum) showing the leaves and branches, the leaves are spread out at different angles
Downy Willow (Salix Lapponum) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

Mountain Willow (Salix arbuscula) is rare outside of Perthshire and Argyll. It's prostrate in its habit - it lies flat to be avoid being ripped up and blown away. Its leaves are much smaller, hairless on top and initially hairy underneath when young, though this disappears after they get older. The leaves are whorled and the willow itself has much smaller catkins.

This is another plant that could easily be overlooked, it might even be shrouded in vegetation. But it likes mountain ledges and damp rocky slopes where it can grow peacefully.

This picture shows a Mountain Willow (Salix arbuscula) which is lying flat on the ground. It has flat spreading branches with small, whorled white-haired leaves. There is a catkin in the middle of the picture with yellow stamens and there is a fly sitting on it.
Mountain Willow (Salix Arbuscula) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)
There is a Mountain Willow in this picture with some spreading branches and a whorl of small, white haired leaves on the branch.
Mountain Willow (Salix Arbuscula) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

Net leaved Willow (Salix Reticulata) is another rare montane willow, it is prostrate in its habit too and is named for the net veined pattern on its leaves. It is a rare plant in Scotland and is the second smallest of our montane willows. This one is relatively rare in the Cairngorms.

The plant shown here is called Net-Leaved Willow (Salix reticulata) and its dark green, net veined leaves dominate the picture.
Net-Leaved Willow (Salix Reticulata) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)
The picture is dominated by the Net-Veined Willow (Salix reticulata) and shows its dark green net veined leaves but also its pale reddish catkins where the flowers are.
Net-Veined Willow (Salix Reticulata) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

The smallest of the montane willows is Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea) and it is tiny, with leaves only about three centimetres across with tiny reddish catkins. It grows low to the ground and this helps it survive exposed mountain plateaus that other plants couldn’t cope with. When seeking new plants there is a worry as to whether they will be found or if they were found would they be recognised. This worry turned out to be unfounded once the Dwarf Willow was found. It actually turned out to be abundant in the area I visited!

This picture has the Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea) which has very small dark green leaves and reddish catkins that produce its flowers, lying flat on the ground.
Dwarf Willow (Salix Herbacea) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)
This is a zoomed out picture of a Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea) growing from peaty soil. The leaves are very small with reddish catkins in the middle. These are younger plants whose catkins have not yet matured.
Dwarf Willow (Salix Herbacea) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

Spiked Woodrush (Luzula spicata) is is related to Great Woodrush often seen in lowland woodland but this plant can grow on rocky ground and its stems bend over. The plant also stands up straight instead of lying flat.

I initially mistook this for the Curved Woodrush (Luzula arcuata), but that species is shorter and has a series of smaller brown flower heads, the outer flower heads would curve downwards. These Spiked Woodrushes turned out to be abundant and quite at home in these mountains.

This is a picture of Spiked Woodrush (Luzula spicata) which has brown flowers on stems that are bent over. Behind them is a mountain plateau with a hill against the skyline.
Spiked Woodrush (Luzula Spicata) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)
This image shows a zoomed in close-up taken with the aid of a hand lens the flowers of the Spiked Woodrush (Luzula spicata). The brown triangular sections are called glumes and from them come the yellowish flowers.
Spiked Woodrush (Luzula Spicata) and its flowers (Photo credit: Harris Brooker)

Bog Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) is another plant commonly seen in the Cairngorms and it has pale green leaves that are net-veined and they produce bluish, black, berries which are pale greenish when not ripe. This is another plant that turned out to be abundant once you got your eye in. The pale green leaves stand out even at a distance.

This is a zoomed out picture of Bog Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) surrounded by heather and a running stream at the bottom of the picture. The Bog Bilberry itself is in the middle of the picture with dark green rounded leaves.
Bog Bilberry (Vaccinium Uliginosum) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)
This picture has a closer view of Bog Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) which has dark green net veined leaves spreading at different angles and occupies the centre of the picture.
Bog Bilberry (Vaccinium Uliginosum) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

Trailing Azalea (Kalmia procumbens) is an alpine plant with pink flowers and is prostrate, which means it lies on the ground to avoid being ripped up by the wind. Its said to have a liking to summits where the vegetation cover is much thinner. But I have seen it grow at lower altitudes though it can't compete with more robust species in acid loving moorland like Ling Heather (Calluna vulgaris). Whenever you get into higher altitudes this plant is sure to add colour to what would otherwise be a more more barren landscape.

This picture shows the plant Trailing Azalea (Kalmia procumbens) which occupies the centre of the picture and has tiny pink flowers with tiny green leaves growing next to them.
Trailing Azalea (Kalmia Procumbens) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

Dwarf Cornel (Cornus suecica) is a peculiar alpine plant. Those white petal-like structures look like petals but are in fact bracts that support the flowers. The flowers themselves are in the middle and can be purplish to black. It's one I've found pleasingly common in some places. When you find Dwarf Cornel growing around you, you know that you're somewhere above average for plant diversity in the uplands, which is remarkable given that the acid soils that support moorland promote the growth of more dominant species like Ling Heather (Calluna vulgaris) which would outcompete most plants that tried to live there.

This picture has a plant called Dwarf Cornel in the middle of it (Cornus suecica). It has green leaves below four white bracts with the purplish flowers in the middle.
Dwarf Cornel (Cornus Suecica) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

Alpine Lady Fern (Athyrium distentifolium) is found in the Cairngorms, mainly in the more sheltered corries, typically above six hundred metres. It's especially common on the scree slopes. It’s a robust fern that stands rigidly in a rosette and has its sori clustered around the centre of the underside of the pinnules.

This picture has rosettes of ferns in the middle called Alpine Lady Fern (Athyrium distentifolium) that are pale green and stand up rigidly surrounded by rocky terrain.
Alpine Lady Fern (Athyrium Distentifolium) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)
This picture has a zoomed in view of the Alpine Lady Fern (Athyrium distentifolium) which has pale green fronds that dominate the centre of the picture and spread out at different angles.
Alpine Lady Fern (Athyrium Distentifolium) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)
This picture has a close up view of the Alpine Lady Fern's sori or spore producing bodies which are greenish kidney shaped bodies that are rounded. Alpine Lady Fern sori are rounded not oblong like in Lady Fern which lives in the lowlands.
Alpine Lady Fern (Athyrium Distentifolium) sori or spore producing bodies (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

This is the similar Newman’s Lady Fern (Athyrium flexile) but it is much thinner, more snake-like, I would describe it as having a fish-bone structure. It’s an endemic to Scotland meaning it lives here and nowhere else in the world. It lives at an altitude of at least seven hundred and fifty metres. This plant is deciduous and likes shaded north easterly and north westerly corries in the mountains and can survive frosts by being buried by snow. Some authorities recognise it as a different species, others consider it to be a stunted form of Alpine Lady Fern (Athyrium distentifolium) It's a very rare fern only found in four sites in Scotland.

In this image are the underside of the pinnules of the Newman's Lady Fern (Athyrium flexile), which show the yellow sori that produce the spores of the fern.
Newman's Lady Fern pinnules showing yellow sori (spore producing bodies) (Photo Credit: Harris Brooker)

This is just a small selection of the alpine plants you can see in the Cairngorms. You may encounter some of them during one of our Day Guides with one of our local guides - there are so many more out there waiting to be discovered!


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