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Wild about May 'flooers' in Shetland

OK - so I know mayflooers is the Shetland dialect name for primroses, but in this blog I am going to write about some of the plants and wild flowers that I have seen in the last 3 weeks whilst out walking in the islands. Of course it includes the primrose, but also several other plants that I managed to get reasonable photos of. The wild flowers really do start to bloom this month and along with the arrival of foals, calves and lambs, it makes you realise that spring is definitely sprung. So in no particular order...........

Marsh marigold - also known as Kingcup, but in Shetland dialect it is ‘blugga’. Its scientific name, Caltha, is derived from the Greek for chalice or goblet – this perennial loves damp meadows and woodlands, marshes, ditches or soaking its roots beside streams. It can provide shelter for frogs and early nectar for insects. Marsh Marigold contains a toxin harmful to humans. Old herbalists used it to remove warts.

Common scurvy grass – also known as Sailor's Hope. This edible plant is rich in Vitamin C, and the leaves, as the name suggests, were once eaten to combat scurvy. It was harvested by sailors and preserved in salt by the vat-load to help stave off scurvy during long sea voyages. The sailors probably didn’t relish their daily dose – the flavour is said to be like strong mustard combined with horseradish (plus the salt)!

Round-leaved sundew - This tiny little plant (about 20mm diameter at this stage) is stunningly beautiful if you look closely, but not too close if you're a tiny fly!! Most plants can't cope with the constant wet conditions and lack of available nutrients on moorland peat bogs, but sundew compensate for this by being carnivorous. They trap small insects on their sticky leaves and then digest them! Each leaf has "hairs" tipped by a globule of sticky liquid to which insects are attracted. Sundews display thigmonasty - the response of a plant to touch or vibration. When sundews feel prey getting caught in their sticky dew, their thigmonasty is to wrap around the prey, until it dies from exhaustion or asphyxiation. The leaf then releases enzymes to help absorb and digest it. Yummee! There at least 194 species of sundew, or Drosera, and they are found on every continent except Antarctica! Sundews are so highly adapted to gaining nutrients from insect prey that some species aren't even able to gather nutrients through their root system at all. Instead, the roots simply keep them rooted to the ground and gather or store water.

Stags-Horn club moss was reasonably widespread in Shetland until the 1970’s but never particularly common. After sightings in 1990, it was feared extinct until it was recorded again in 2004. The Shetland Biological Records Centre has asked for any sightings and I was thrilled to find it on the hillside near our house – confirmed by Paul Harvey at the SBRC. It is toxic, but the spores are not known to be harmful and can be collected as a fine yellow powder called 'Lycopodium' powder then used for several purposes – not all necessarily here in Shetland though:

  • In natural toiletries - Lycopodium is able to absorb and repel water at the same time. This means that when used as a deodorant, it will absorb sweat but also keep skin dry from external humidity. On hair, it will absorb excess oil (sebum) and prevent hair from frizzing in light rain.

  • In classroom science demonstrations, where sound vibrations on brass plates were made visible or the presence of electrostatic charges easily betrayed

  • It is highly inflammable - it was used in fireworks where it burnt explosively emitting sparks and in photographic flash powders.

  • Its lightness and tendency to stick to slight electrical charge or oil also made it useful as a fingerprint powder.

Thrift (also known as sea pinks and in Shetland as banksflooer). This species of flowering plant in the family Leadworts (Plumbaginaceae) grows on coastal rocks, pastures and salt marshes all-round the Scottish coastline, and can sometimes be found on exposed cliff tops and windy mountainsides. There is a very old belief that Thrift and other ‘Leadworts’ can cure lead poisoning, which is reflected in the family name (Plumbo means lead). The British threepence coin issued between 1937 and 1952 had a design of thrift on the reverse.

Heath Milkwort – I really hope I have identified this one correctly, as it is just like common milkwort, but the leaves are opposite each other up the stem rather than alternate. The flowers can be a variety of colours from dark-blue, through pink to white. The name 'milkwort' comes from the ancient Greek botanist Dioscorides. He called it polygalon or 'much milk' believing it to 'make milk more abundant'. Exactly who's milk he didn't say, but herbalists used to prescribe it to nursing mothers (as opposed to grazing cows!).

And finally, primrose - The name derives from the Latin ‘prima rosa’ meaning 'first rose' of the year, despite not being a member of the rose family. In Shetland it is known as the mayflooer, as that is the month when it is most prominent, but this year I first spotted them in late March after our very mild winter. Primroses are edible: the leaves can be used to make tea and wine from early flowers. April 19th is 'Primrose day'. This date is the anniversary of the death of the former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the primrose was his favourite flower. Queen Victoria supposedly sent him bunches regularly and to this day primroses are laid at his statue by Westminster Abbey on this date every year. In 2015, primrose came second behind bluebells in a poll to find Britain’s favourite flower.

I hope I have not made any serious errors in this blog - I am just a keen amateur, interested in all of Shetland's wildlife. If anyone spots a mistake, please feel free to contact me and let me know.

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