On finding new plants for Whalsay

It’s always fun to find something new. Something you’ve not seen before, something that you find for yourself without any prior knowledge that it’s there to be stumbled upon. When you get that moment of spontaneity, that “oh my god” lurch of surprise and then recognition. Better yet when the thing you’ve found is something that’s never been recorded at that site before, and indeed seems to be altogether new for the immediate locale. That happened twice to me today, and within ten minutes of one another.

I was out looking for Moonwort Botrcychium lunaria on Whalsay – I’d seen one small plant at this site a couple of years ago, and wanted to see if it was still there. As it turned out, it was, some dozen plants, but very ‘gone-over’. I’d clearly seen it much earlier in the season in 2012. It came as a massive shock then when I glanced nearby and realised there was a sturdy clump of Autumn Gentian Gentianella amarella standing proud above the short turf! And then saw another. And another. In the end, I reckoned on there being at least 100 flowering plants in the immediate vicinity.

140726 Autumn Gentian Whalsay

These Autumn Gentians are subspecies septentrionalis, and are, according to “Rare Plants of Shetland”, internationally rare, endemic to the British Isles, scarce and declining in Shetland. It doesn’t appear to have been recorded on Whalsay before. Another, much smaller plant in the grass caught my eye. Something small, green and fairly insignificant – and something I’d not seen before outside of photos – Small Adder’s-tongue Ophioglossum azoricum. A careful look revealed at least 20 further plants nearby.

140726 Small Adder's-tongue Whalsay

This one’s described in “Rare Plants of Shetland” as nationally scarce and, once again, doesn’t seem to have any previous records from Whalsay. Like the gentian, certainly none from this particular site. And what a site – with Autumn Gentian, Small Adder’s-tongue and Moonwort all within a few feet of one another – this is superb, unimproved grassland that I know the owner has implemented a grazing regime upon with birds and flora in mind. It’s paying dividends.

I think the name is a bit of a misnomer for this diminutive fern. It looks like no Adder’s tongue I’ve ever seen; but very like a Sonoran rattlesnake’s rattle! Anyway, a fine day here, spent in great company, and some good plants found. Happy days.


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