Once again, it’s been way too long since I last took a moment to write a personal blog post – though, lately, I’ve started to write for the lovely folk at Promote Shetland about two of my favourite things in the world: Shetland, and the marvellous wildlife that’s to be found in and around the islands. I’m delighted to be working with Promote Shetland, and there’ll be more blog posts to look out for on their site in the coming year. I’m also proud to say I’m now working with Leica, and have written a blog post for them all about orchid-hunting in Rhodes this spring.
So what else have I been up to? The last few months have been intense, a combination of leading wildlife tours for Greenwings, and stepping up the research for my next book. On the latter front I recently spent some time in Alaska – a part of the USA I’d not visited hitherto, and in an area of the state that shares some parallels with my Shetland home.
The small town of Cordova sits near the 60° north circle of latitude on which, coincidentally, Shetland also rests; both communities are historically heavily dependent on fishing for their livelihoods; and both have, in the past, experienced the horror of an oil tanker running aground in their midst. In Alaska, that was the Exxon Valdez; and in Shetland, the Braer.
On land, Cordova is surrounded by glaciers, mountains and forests. Shetland can boast none of those, but what we do have in common are areas of boggy ground and, in them, there are species of plant we both share. Whilst walking through the Alaskan bogs, or muskeg, I was surprised to find flowering plants that are on my very doorstep here in Shetland – not least the carnivorous Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris and Round-leaved Sundews Drosera rotundifolia. The former, whilst said to be the same species, seemed to me to have paler, larger and laxer flowers than their Shetland equivalents; but the Round-leaved Sundews were indistinguishable from those that stud the damper areas of Shetland.
Whilst it wasn’t orchids I was looking for in Alaska, I couldn’t help but notice those that grew alongside the sundews in the muskeg – White Bog Orchid Platanthera dilatata was fairly commonplace, throwing up spires of white, waxy, strongly perfumed flowers. With much evidence of recent bear activity in the area, I have never felt more self-conscious and vulnerable than when I lost myself in my camera’s viewfinder to take some wildflower photos…
Later on, with a spare day remaining to me before I made my way home to Shetland, I went searching for another orchid, Keyflower Dactylorhiza aristata, a native of Japan, Korea and the far east of Russia – a plant with a small foothold in Alaska too. Unfortunately, poor weather limited how far up Mount Eyak I could climb in the limited time available to me, so this orchid evaded me – but I found another species, instead, by way of compensation, in an alpine meadow alongside more White Bog Orchids. A close relative of the latter species, Slender Bog Orchid Platanthera stricta is a more subtle affair, with pale green flowers.
They grew in loose, mixed colonies – try as I might though, I couldn’t find a flowering plant that suggested any sort of hybridisation between the two. I had ample distraction with a range of other flowering plants, not least yellow-flowered Oeder’s Lousewort Pedicularis oederi and a mouth-watering fritillary – Chocolate Lily Fritillaria camschatcensis was not commonplace at this elevation, but those I found were all the more appreciated for their comparative rarity there as much as for their understated good looks.
No sooner had I returned to Shetland this past week than I was immediately reminded of the circumstances in which I had found both of these North American bog-loving orchids – I’ve spent some time this week with wet feet in a Schoenus flush on the east side of Shetland, surrounded by arguably one of Britain’s finest colonies of Bog Orchid Hammarbya paludosa. Our native Bog Orchids are the very antithesis of their American cousins, for all they share a love of a wet, waterlogged habitat. All they have in common with Slender Bog Orchid is the green colour of their flowers; but in some instances a single Slender Bog Orchid flower was the same size as an entire Bog Orchid plant. Our Bog Orchids are tiny delicate plants, most barely topping an inch in height.
As such, they’re hard to find, and great care must be exercised when walking into their habitats to avoid inadvertently damaging unseen plants. I was dismayed, in recent days, to find evidence that someone had been there before me – one stand of three flower spikes had been heavily ‘gardened’, with surrounding vegetation stripped away by the hand of an unknown photographer. (Personally, I prefer to compose my photos through the surrounding vegetation and, hence, minimise any impact of my visit). Whoever the photographer was had also left a large, flattened and trampled area of vegetation in front of the orchids, with a crushed Bog Orchid amongst the damage – a chastening and sad end to my orchid-hunting experiences this summer.
I’d rather not dwell on that and, instead, prefer to think more on the pleasant parallels between the wildflowers of Alaska and Shetland – two places thousands of miles apart, but with some species in common that speak of a more ancient, shared time.