Thursday, 27 April 2017

Mitella ovalis

As arranged I met Stephen Bungard, BSBI Recorder for North Ebudes (VC104) and quickly led him to the Mitella ovalis site. But before we'd gone more than thirty feet I pointed out a young Horse-chestnut that has self-seeded from nearby planted trees. Today was about showing Stephen the Mitella and everything else I had found that wasn't listed for this monad on the BSBI database. I had a list of nearly fifty species to be confirmed and Stephen was carrying a BSBI checklist. But first let's get back to the Mitella...

Stephen had brought a leaf of the closely related Fringecups Tellima (Mitella) grandiflora with him to compare against my Mitella, just to allay any doubts that he may have overlooked ovalis in the past. One long, hard stare at the plants (and another at me) and he concluded, "Gosh, that really is a very different plant from Tellima grandiflora, it's much smaller isn't it? No confusion at all really. I hadn't realised it was this small". I felt a sudden pang of guilt, I should have added something for scale in my images. Satisfied that he hadn't seen this plant elsewhere we quickly surveyed the site and mapped the extent of it's spread along the brook. This is Stephen taking a few pics of the very plant that I first spotted

It's not easy to see in this image, but he's placed a GPS unit next to the plant for scale. I think I really ought to add a small tape measure to my kit from now on. 

Anyway, we started at the bottom of the brook (a mere trickle at the moment) where it disappears into a shallow rocky depression. The Ramsons form a thick carpet and it's not easy to see quite where the brook disappears, but we satisfied ourselves that we hadn't missed any Mitella further downslope. We checked all the way up the brook until reaching the top where it emerges from below ground at a wall next to the road.  There is a large clump of Mitella at the base of this wall, clearly the originator of the plants further downstream. Quite where this clump came from is the million dollar question. It's proximity to the road would suggest flytipping of garden refuse over the wall. Unless we can deduce otherwise this remains the most likely explanation. However, looking at the surrounding landscape this seems unlikely. People up here tend to have land with a house in it. Garden planting features aren't commonplace, especially not well-tended ones. And why go to the bother of tipping it over a wall, it's just not like that up here. Plus wouldn't there be signs of whatever else was tipped - lopped branches, rotting piles of grass clippings, other garden plants establishing? No sign of any of that. I'm far from convinced by the fly-tipping explanation, though it's hard to think of any other obvious mechanism of arrival.

Stephen picked a single specimen and bagged it up for dispatch to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, a world-renowned scientific centre for the study of plants. He also took a couple of basal leaves and a flowering spike for keying through at high magnification. Our work here completed, I started my botanical tour of NG3963 covering over half of the monad in some detail. Here's the link to Stephen's account of the day on his Blog.

We started off wandering down Cuil Road before turning back and walking through Shore Woods, the top of the beach, through a rather overgrown patch, back through the woods and finishing up by the store where we met. We didn't check the areas directly east or south of Uig Woods so I shall just have to find another goodie up there to draw Stephen back another day! 

Having somebody alongside who actually knows their plants is really handy. I'd been umming and aahing about a patch of big leaves for a couple of weeks now but casting his expert eye over it Stephen confirmed that my mystery plant was indeed Rhubarb Rheum x rhabarbarum, and a lifer for me no less! 

Rhubarb - apparently scattered about all over the place up here!
My next lifer was a little bizarre. There's a small walled area alongside the road here, open on one side and the ground is covered in road planings. But it's derelict and the plants are starting to take a hold once more. There's lots of Thale Cress present and a single Dove's-foot Crane's-bill (neither of which are common plants on Skye) but I was keen for Stephen to check the whitlowgrass I had found growing here. I was happy it was Erophila verna, which is rather coarsely hairy. Stephen took one look and said Erophila glabrescens, which obviously isn't very hairy at all (glabra = smooth). Puzzled that my interpretation of hairiness was so far awry I had a look at Stephen's plant (about 2cm tall and growing a foot away from my 2cm tall plant) and found a completely different beast, this one having a fringe of hairs around the outside edge of the leaf rather than chunky hairs dotted across the upper surface. We swapped positions and suddenly realised we had both Erophila growing side by side! Brilliant, Glabrous Whitlowgrass Erophila glabrescens is a new one for me - and apparently the commonest Erophila on Skye.  Continuing down the Cuil Road Stephen pointed out a single specimen of Garden Solomon's Seal Polygonatum x hybridum growing in the rough verge, my third lifer along a 300 metre stretch of road! 

Erophila - I think this one is verna, petals seem quite deeply split
In a grassy verge I queried a Lady's Mantle which proved to be Soft Lady's Mantle A.mollis which is the commonest of the genus on Skye, often escaping from gardens. In the woods a second species was found, Pale Lady's Mantle A.xanthochlora which is easily recognised by the glabrous upper surface to the leaf and hairy veins and scattered hairs on the underside of the leaf. Easy - when you've an expert stood beside you telling you what you're looking at! This latter was my fourth new plant of the day. Here's a pic, though you can't see any useful features from it

Pale Lady's Mantle - the second commonest Alchemilla in lowland Skye after mollis.
I bade farewell to Stephen, I hope I can tempt him back soon with more decent plant finds. Seemingly we added 52 species to the tetrad list, not too bad for a few hours' work. Wandering back up the hill, ready for some food before working an evening shift, my eye was caught by a small plant that stopped me dead in my tracks. Mitella, growing on the edge of a raised lawn! 

Well I'll be buggered......
This plant is approximately 200 metres distant from the plants in Uig Wood. But I have a theory, and it doesn't involve fly-tipping. 

The plants in Uig Wood are established along a small brook that emerges from below ground close to the road. It seems likely that the seeds from the originating plants have floated along the brook and germinated where suitable, thus colonising a short stretch. The question, of course, is where did the clump furthest upstream come from? 

We get a lot of rain up here on Skye, often heavy and of prolonged duration. Water flows downhill. The garden with the Mitella is directly upslope from Uig Woods. I believe that somehow Mitella plants, or at least their seeds, have somehow ended up being washed into a drain/gutter, have travelled underground along this watercourse and have been spewed out at the point where the brook emerges into Uig Woods. 

Not sure how I can prove that, but it's food for thought.


  1. Any field excursion is elevated by the presence of an expert botanist - and you're not far off from being exactly that yourself!

  2. Not sure who's blog you think you're commenting on Steve, but I think you must be confusing me with somebody else. Unless by 'not far off' you mean "ok on some as long as they aren't grasses, sedges, rushes, aquatics, conifers, exotics, willows or anything that's not in flower" :) But thanks anyway mate! ;)

  3. Judging by your image, I am getting balder by the day.

    1. Too many hours spent neck deep in plant recording? Maybe take up something less stressful. Like rare bird twitching (Raasay to Cornwall and then back via Norfolk and Yorkshire in a weekend sound more relaxing maybe?) :)

  4. My local reserve list always took a jump when I persuaded expert groups to survey it!