Last year I was stopped in my tracks by the discovery of something the likes of which I’d not seen before in Shetland, something beautiful, and all the more precious both for its rarity and the sheer unexpectedness of our paths crossing.
The last thing I was expecting to find on Whalsay was an Autumn Gentian Gentianella amarella – they’d not been recorded on the island ever before. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find over 100 flowering plants. I’d seen them elsewhere on the mainland of Shetland by the roadside in the south and central mainland – they’re said to have been accidentally introduced by the Council’s road-workers importing gravel and hardstanding from other areas of the isles. My ones are nowhere near a road, and nowhere near where any aggregate has been imported from off the isle. I’ve looked into that subsequently – but whether or not they’ve always been here, or were accidentally introduced a long time ago, they’re a flourishing colony nowadays.
I’ve been missing them as this summer has worn on, and they’ve taken their time coming through. Some weeks ago all that was to be seen in the short, maritime heathland were small, spiky starfishes of leaves that I suspected were the gentians. Last year’s flowering date came and went, and they were still barely forming buds. Suddenly though, after a few warm days this week, they’re coming into flower – way over 100 plants again, some of them forming dense carpets.
From a distance they look like the spiky top of a buried pineapple; their leaves are angular and appear sharply pointed, and their tightly closed flowers are spiky too. They’re by no means the showiest of the gentian clan – but I think they’re wonderful, and I drank my morning coffee in the warm sunshine with them today.
Also new for the island last year, and found by me on the same day as the Autumn Gentians were a couple of dozen Small Adder’s-tongues, a tiny and faintly unnerving fern. They’re very obvious this year as much of the surrounding vegetation is less advanced than it was last year, and I stopped counting when I reached 50 plants in a small area, some growing tightly against the gentians.
It’s a wonderful, unspoilt and unfertilised field they’re both to be found in. Unmeddled with for many years, it’s a hint of just how good patches of Shetland’s habitat are when you only bother to look closely at them.
(Ha – two blogposts in as many days after an absence of some six weeks. It’s all feast and famine with me… There’s more to come shortly with some marine wildlife to chatter away about, and autumn migration’s just around the corner… though I’ve been blessed with an early rarity already. More anon).