Every mountain leader needs to learn some names of plants growing in the hills. Even if you are not a mountain leader it can add a lot of pleasure to your walk if you can name some of things you see growing. But it's not always easy to remember the names. One thing that can help is to learn some interesting things about the plant. Give it a back story and you are more likely to remember its name.
Thinking of really daft images also work. Let your creativty fly with ridiculous situations that include the plant, its name and perhaps an aspect of its back story. The more ridiculous it is, the more memorable it will be for you.
So, here is more information about some common plants as well as some things that might just help you remember them.
Freddy fungus and Annie alga were deeply in love. Freddy said "I'll provide the house" and Annie said "I'll provide the food", and together they lived in perfect harmony.
This is a lichen. Lichens are made up of two things, a fungus and an alga. The fungus provides the structure of the plant (the house) and the alga captures and provides minerals for the fungus as well as for itself. The lichen is a symbiotic relationship of the two things. One without the other is nothing. This particular one is sometimes Devil's Matchsticks and it's got a fancy latin name that I don't know!
Sundew is awesome! It is one of two plants in the UK that eats insects. The sticky beads of enzymes on the ends of the hairs on its leaves catch small flys and spiders and digest them, giving the plant an advantage over other plants. This allows it to grow in very poor ground, mostly boggy bits of peat. The one above is in flower, something I have not seen very often. You can also see spiders and flys in its leaves.
It is called sundew because, when the sun has dried off all the dew on other plants, the sundew looks like it still has drops of dew on its leaves. This used to scare people (a long time ago) so the plant was thought to have slightly sinister properties. Which is true - animal eating plants are scary! Don't stick your finger in one of these, it will have your arm off in seconds.
Butterwort is the other midgie eater. It has hairs and enzymes in the curls of its pale green leaves which catch spiders and flies where they get digested. It also lives in wet, boggy areas where other plants struggle to survive. Next time you are churning your milk, bung in a bit of butterwort. The enzymes will help your milk turn into butter.
Bog asphodel is one of my favourites. It's rich yellow flowers with spiky petals pointing up at the sky are like ladies hands with long slender fingers catching bright rays of sunshine. That's the daft image I used to help me remember the plant. The hands are ladies hands because bog asphodel was used by women to colour their hair and the plant can be used for dying other things as well.
Bog asphodel used to be called bone breaker. Crofters found that cattle eating the flowers were more likely to break bones in their legs. What they didn't know is that this flower grows in quite acidic conditions, where there is very little calcium. It was the lack of calcium in the cows' diet that led to brittle bones and more chance of broken legs, not eating the bog asphodel.
Lousewort is a very common pink flower that might occasionally be found with a white flower. There are white lousewort on Buachaille Etive Mor. The funny shaped flowers reminded me of some of the puppets in Sesame Street or The Muppets, and helped me remember the plant. It looks pretty and delicate, but it is quite mean. Under the ground, its roots eat into those of neighbouring plants to gain more minerals and to give it an advantage over them.
Imagine a small caveman, about 20cm tall, running around the highlands in his animal skin clothes. He'd have a club in his hands to donk things with, such as dinosaurs or other tiny cavemen. Club moss would be the ideal size and shape for a club for a tiny cave man, but quite ineffective since it is normally soft and light. Club moss sometimes has spores in the ends of its clubs that ping off when you brush past. The spores can go for 30cm or more, and you can trigger them to fly off with your finger. Try it next time. The club moss trailing down the rock in the picture is antler club moss, a variety that creeps along the ground and can be many metres long. Fir club moss grows in little clumps and alpine club moss is much more compact and low growing,
Orchids are beautiful flowers that are quite common. There are a few varieties in our hills, and they all grow in stiff stems with a head of lovely flowers. This one is a heath spotted orchid, the one you are most likely to see in the hills. I used to think that orchids were reserved to rainforests where David Attenborough went to make TV nature programmes. Now I know they are common across the UK and quite easy to find. This does not detract from them though, they are fantastic flowers.
Next time we'll have a look at bog cotton, eyebright, the fabulous sphagnum moss and some others.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.