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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 July 2010 by John Richards

The alpine flora of Ben Lawers. Entry 154.

Ben Lawers and Meall nan Tarmachan

Last Saturday, Sheila and I joined 18 other Northumbrian botanical enthusiasts in the Ben Lawers area, north of Loch Tay in the central Scottish Highlands, for four nights. This is the richest area in Britain for alpine flowers, and if it does not start to compare with the flora of the Alps, Pyrenees, or, truth to tell, most montane regions of the world, nevertheless there is much of interest to see. Also, it is easy to reach, if not always easy of access! I had not visited these districts since I was a young man, and I approached the trip with keen anticipation, as well as a slight sense of foreboding at the physical effort likely to be involved! Not having been there since the 1970's, I was eager to see what changes had occurred. Most of those I encountered were encouraging, not least the marked decrease in grazing, leading to much more lush vegetation.

The best starting point is the Ben Lawers carpark, situated at 476 m on the little road that runs northward from the western end of Loch Tay towards Glen Lyon. From here, for more than a kilometre, the footpath runs through an unfenced area with many colourful flowers. At the top end, in the Burn of Edramucky is a sensational and very confusing population of willows, involving Salix lapponum, S. lanata (although no 'pure' plants here that I could see), S. arbuscula, S. myrsinites and a confusing array of most hybrid combinations, at only about 650 m altitude. Here is a picture of part of the population.

Ben Lawers and Meall nan Tarmachan

My favourite mountain willow is S. lanata, the 'woolly willow' which is an excellent garden plant which thrives here at Hexham. It is very rare in the wild in Scotland, probably because it is a favourite with the Red Deer. We saw a little much higher on Lawers, but on the cliffs of Creag an Lochain, above the Lawers carpark, and across the Lochain an Dam dam on the slopes of Meall nan Tarmachan, there are fine populations, thriving due to the lack of grazing there. As fine plants also grow in the garden of the NTS shop on Killin main street, I suspect many of these had been raised from wild cuttings and put back into the habitat, a most commendable exercise. Here is a picture of one of the Creag an Lochain plants, followed by a hybrid with S. lapponum seen there.

Staying with alpine willows, we were all struck by the splendid forms of the tiny S. herbacea seen high on Lawers. The females had more vivid red catkins than any of us had seen before. Following this is the attractive S. reticulata, a plant of base-rich cliffs. Seemingly this creeping plant, formerly popular with rock-plant enthusiasts, but not often seen today, has become rare on these mountains and we only saw it once.

The best known and one of the most accessible areas on Ben Lawers for alpines are the so-called 'south-west cliffs', formally Creag Loisgte. No, I can't either! Here is a picture of the mountain from below Beinn Ghlas, showing the cliffs at a distance, followed by one of Loch Tay from the cliffs.

This is a good area to see most of the more colourful alpines close up. Here, photos of Myosotis alpestris are followed by Silene acaulis, Veronica fruticans, V. alpina and Potentilla crantzii.

From here. at about 1000 m altitude, it is another 200 m to the summit, a hard slog. It is worthwhile however, as there are a few 'specials' only found around the summit, notably Draba norvegica in one of only a handful of British sites.

If you walk a few hundred metres to the south of the summit, the rough rocks and low cliffs there are an excellent locality and used to be place to see the very rare Saxifraga cernua. This never flowers here, but produces red bulbils instead. I believe it has almost disappeared from Lawers. Sadly, I didn't really have time to explore this area this year, but I was encouraged to seek out and copy my transparency from 1980. This is shown at the end of this diary contribution.

Minuartia sedoides was also very tight and attractive here, although it is abundant on the upper slopes of the mountain.

Its not possible to talk about the 'flowers' of Lawers and its neighbours without mentioning the rich alpine fern flora there. Species such as Athyrium distentifolium, Dryopteris expansa and Asplenium viride are quite common, and it is a great place to see the spectacular holly fern, Polystichum lonchitis, especially on the cliffs of Creag an Lochain where it is locally common and grows to a great size in the absence of grazing.

Much more arcane, but rare and sought after, are the woodsias. These are very easily confused with mountain forms of brittle bladder fern, Cystopteris fragilis, which can fruit when very small, and of Athyrium distentifolium. Woodsias lack the thin black leaf stalk of bladder ferns, and the sorus is more or less naked and orbicular. Sticky glands can be seen with a lens. We eventually found a nice group of W. ilvensis on the slopes of Ben Lawers.

Two of the five saxifrages we saw to finish with. The rarest is S. nivalis, which we found a nice little colony of on Creag an Lochain just where I photographed it in 1965.

By far the most spectacular was S. aizoides, which grew and flowered in amazing abundance everywhere. Here is a particularly good plant on the gravelly shores of Lochain an Dam.

Back home

This is just a taste of what we saw. In total we recorded at least 70 mountain plants and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, even if our stiff joints are only now starting to ease!

Just a few late summer alpines that are giving pleasure at the moment to finish with. I have long had what is now a large specimen of Daphne alpina planted out, but a couple of years ago I acquired the variegated form which I grow in a pot in the alpine house. Both plants are in flower now, curiously because when we saw it in the wild beside Slovenian Lake Bohinj, it was starting to flower in May.

Back home

Staying in the alpine house, Rehmannia glutinosa is very lovely at present. This is grown planted out in a sand plunge where it creeps around in a modest way. Stems are monocarpic, so I have thought I had lost it several times, before another small shoot pops up and flowers after a year or two.

I know I showed Gentiana georgii last year (twice!), but, greatly to my surprise, it survived its flowering and has gone on to flower again, without a repot and with a minimum of liquid feed (and only a 13 cm pot). It didn't set seed last year which may have contributed to its perenniality. Presumably it is self-sterile, unlike many gentians.

I love Teucrium pyrenaicum which grows itself in a rather neglected and quite dry trough in full sun. Its quite common at moderate altitudes in the Pyrenees on limestone, flowering at the same time as it does in the garden. Thoroughly recommended.

A couple of 'mainstays' for July in the daisy family, the 'pink dandelion;' Crepis incana, and another Greek from the MESE expedition, Lactuca intricata. I find both trouble-free in a gravelly soil.

Unlike the last two, Rosularia chrysantha is new to me, but I could certainly get to like it.

Finally, Sheila would not forgive me if I did not feature some of her perennials, now at their best.

Saxifraga cernua
Having sought out the old picture of Saxifraga cernua from the summit of Ben Lawers, I am unable to insert it in the narrative, so here it is in conclusion. Note the yellow entomological pin which was presumably some kind of experimental marker!

Saxifraga cernua
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