Wild flowers, plants and fungi are the life support for all Scotland’s wildlife and their colour and character brighten mountains and glens, lochs and islands. Some of these species are in danger, but fortunately there are several groups working hard to preserve Scotland’s natural heritage from being lost. The mission statement for the Ayr Flower Show states that it raises the profile and protects the future of flowers in Scotland.
Scotland’s most popular flower is it national flower, the thistle. It’s not certain how the purple-flowered thistle became the national flower, but legend says that a sleeping party of Scots warriors were saved from an invading Norse army when one of the enemies trod on the spiky plant and his cry of pain woke the soldiers who defeated the invaders and then adopted the thistle as their national symbol. It’s not known which variety thistle the national flower should be, but there are several found on Scotland’s soil and you can choose from the cotton, spear, musk, melancholy or Our Lady’s thistle.
Another iconic Scottish plant is heather. There are two main types of heather – Calluna or common heather and Erica, which is sometimes called ‘bell heather’. There are two species of Erica, the other is called cross-leaved heath (E. tetralix) because all its flowers are at the top of the stem. Common heather, also called ‘ling’, is widespread across all landscapes in Scotland and is hardy enough to cope with the poor acid Highland soils.
Heather was also hardy enough for Highlanders of old to make rope a variety of items from the tough stems, from a brush to bedding, insulation, a dye for clothing, to make rope and to make ale, though the recipe for the original ale is not known. After the second world war, the shortage of wood created an industry that made floor tiles from compressed heather stems.
Heather has also had a medicinal role, said to have restorative powers and it is still prescribed for the treatment of rheumatism and for urinary infections. Heather honey is made in hives left on the moors in summer. You can taste this honey at the Ayr Flower Show. The taste is beautiful and it also makes a great gift.
Scots bluebells are another of the best known Scottish flowers. They are different to bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) which usually grow in great carpets in woodlands. Scots bluebells are in fact Campanula rotundifolia, which in English are known as harebells. Scots bluebells are commonly found on heathland and verges.
Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) is an amazing plant that has leaves that look like miniature oak leaves and has a flower that follows the sun. It does not grow on the peaty acid soil that is common in Scotland, instead you find it growing on limestone, so is usually found high in the mountains. If you see this plant, you’re on limestone.
This is a pink starry flower that has foliage like moss. It is found across the wild uplands of Scotland, including the Cairngorms, and brightens up a long day’s hillwalk.
Dwarf cornel (Cornus suesica) likes poor acid soil, making it a blanket-bog specialist. It is found in the Scottish highlands, particularly at Glen Clova, but though no further south than this location. The ideal location for the dwarf cornel is the high moors in peaty ground amongst low shrubs. The white parts of the flower are not petals, but modified leaves known as bracts.
Bog myrtle, also known as sweet gale has leaves give off a citrus scent when crushed, which is said to repels midges. The plant is common in the Highlands peat bogs. Scots herbalists consider this to be the country’s answer to tea tree as has long been valued for its antibacterial properties. The plant is used by the Highland Soap company in their hand wash, hand and body lotion, night cream and soap. These can all be bought at the company’s trade stand at the Ayr Flower Show.
Also known as Primula Scotica, this small plant with dark purple flowers and yellow centres grows on moist but well-drained, grazed grasslands. At only 4cm tall it is susceptible to under-grazing and over-grazing, which makes it a nationally scarce flower. Native to Scotland, the flower is only found in the wild in Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney, flowering between the months of May and July.
The wood anemone is one of the first Scottish flowers to appear in the spring and they are found in woodland areas. White or pink in colour, the anemone is also known as the wind flower because the ancient Greeks believed that the flower would only open as the wind blew on it.
The Cuckoo Flower, also known as Lady’s Smock is another spring flower in Scotland. It is known by both names: Cuckoo due to the time the flower blooms, and Lady’s Smock due to its. It has a delicate lilac colouring and is found in damp meadows or road verges. If you see this plant, it is likely you will see an orange-tip butterfly close by, as they are associated with the plant.
Lichens and bryophytes
Scotland has around 1600 native flowering plants, but many lichens that need fungi to survive and moss-like plants, called bryophytes, that thrive in moist environments. Scotland’s lichens and bryophytes are abundant and of global importance. One of the talks at the Ayr Flower Show will be about the importance of these plant groups and their conservation. The talk will be given by the Scottish Trust of Conservation Volunteers.
Flower of Scotland – Numerous references to the flowers of Scotland appear in folklore, song and poetry. Scotland’s national anthem is Flower of Scotland, written by Roy Williamson and first broadcast by the BBC in 1968, it is unashamedly patriotic, though at the time it was written a Scottish Parliament and Independence seemed a distant dream.