Nature Notes from Skye
(and occasionally other places)

Thu 17 Jun 2004

Quick evening stroll out the back, pictures lacking in brightness and contrast due to the dusky conditions.  Could have restored them in the "digital darkroom", but then I might fail to recall the midge-filled ambience when I look back at the pictures in later life.  No, this is how things look after a rainy day in Skye when the clouds clear just as the light fades.

Gymnadenia conopsea   Digitalis purpurea

On the left, Fragrant Orchid, from a colony less than a minute's walk from my door.  On the right, Foxgloves, whose tall spikes are contributing to the beauty of many a scene across the island at present.

Fri 18 Jun 2004

True to yesterday evening's promise, a fine day, though with a northerly wind that was incredibly cold for the time of year, just a week before midsummer.  Could not get away till late afternoon, and then headed for the heathery bits hoping to get a photo of Lesser Twayblade before its season was over.  This involves parting likely-looking clumps of heather by hand until you find the tell-tale pair of small triangular leaves.  And then very often that's all it is, just leaves - but the flowering stems are so thin, and the flowers so like bits of heather debris, that if you're not careful you risk dismissing a plant in full blossom as just another non-flowering leaf-pair.

Trudged through a lot of heather with no luck, then sat on a rock by a small waterfall to have a sandwich and keep out of the wind for a minute.  I noticed there were some Melancholy Thistles around, but unlike those at sea level they were not in flower yet.  Then I saw one that was in flower, and to my surprise it had two flowerheads, instead of the usual solitary one.  Then I noticed another, and it had five!!!!!

Cirsium heterophyllum   Cirsium heterophyllum

Dashed over and checked the leaves; they were pinnately lobed as shown, while those of the other plants around were entire.  Instantly I thought "Melancholy Thistle hybrid with Marsh Thistle".  I had never heard of such a hybrid existing, but I record the way the thought came into my mind because jizz is important with these things.  I didn't think of a hybrid with Creeping or Spear Thistle, but Marsh Thistle.  Of course, habitat may have influenced me, as Marsh is more likely in such a place, though there weren't any to be seen in the vicinity.

On inspection, I began to doubt my instinctive diagnosis, principally because the leaves were totally hairless on the upperside.  Those of Melancholy have hairs at the base, while those of Marsh are very hairy, so the hybrid ought to have a fair smattering of hairs.  Instead, the upper surface of the leaf was very smooth, somewhat glaucous, and looked rather like the leaf of a fleshy seashore plant, although it was not actually fleshy.  In comparison to the leaves of the "genuine" Mel Thistles nearby, it was a bluer shade of green, more smooth and rubbery-looking, veins less prominent, much less clutter.

Having now got home and looked in the books I find, first, that Mel Thistle does hybridise with Marsh, and not with any other species.  The hybrid is occasional in Scotland.  But I also find that Mel sometimes has divided leaves.  So is mine just an unusual Mel?  In support of this is the fact that the underside of the leaves was the same distinctive white as that of the "real" Mel's nearby, not at all diluted into a more greenish white.

All the same, these two plants differed from the adjacent "normal" Mel's in three ways:

I think they must be pure Mel's, but the difference between those and the others close by was extraordinary.

At length I found my Lesser Twayblades.  Most had begun to go over and their flowers had lost their tails if not their entire lips, but perseverance eventually paid off...

Listera cordata   Listera cordata

Complete flower-spike on the left, close-up of the only flower that still had its tails, (or should that be legs?) on the right. This orchid is truly tiny, the pics are much magnified.

Xanthorhoe montanata

Finally a Silver-ground Carpet, resting on a garden plant of London Pride.