The smallest thing

Early Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata coccinea

Early marsh orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata coccinea

Dactylorhiza incarnata coccinea

Early marsh orchid mature plant

There are times when the small irritations in a gardener’s life can begin get out of perspective e.g. when the rabbits start digging up new plants and eat all the flower buds off the alliums or when you realise that the only way to get the mint out of the herb garden is to dig up the whole bed or that the bittercress is joining the chickweed in the race to swamp the vegetable garden.
Usually five minutes listening to the skylarks with a cup of tea is enough to raise the spirits and restore the equilibrium. But sometimes even this incantation fails and something special is required. Yesterday, with rain threatening, the grass to cut in the cottage garden, the fruit cages to weed and the prospect of clearing and replanting part of the giant hedge the under-gardener was a trifle grumpy and there was no tuneless whistle accompanying the squeak of the wheelbarrow. Then when checking to see if the cowslips had dropped their seeds to enable us to cut the grass along the drive, a flash of dark red caught the eye – the tiny flower spike of an early marsh orchid.
Early marsh orchids grow in the grassland on our headland and are relatively common in the islands and I had been hoping that eventually they might appear in the cottage garden. The strip of grassland along the drive has not been sown with grass and is a natural wildflower meadow – full of daisies, bird’s-foot trefoil, self-heal, red bartisa, plantains, clover and other machair flower species. There was always a strong possibility that there would be orchid seed in the soil or that seeds would arrive from one of the nearby populations, but after eight years I was beginning to become less optimistic. It was worth the wait, the grumpiness dissipated, it didn’t rain and my smile was as bright as my canary yellow gardening gloves.
Eventually this tiny plant may become as magnificent as some of its siblings and in time we might have a small sward of orchids spreading up the drive.Dactylorhiza incarnata coccina swarda-plants


The Machair in Flower – May


Meadow buttercup, birdsfoot trefoil and ribwort plantain

I know that the machair is about to burst into flower when the grass becomes speckled with the small white flowers of our common daisy (Bellis perennis). As the days pass the grassland slowly turns into a sea of waving golden heads of meadow buttercups (Ranunculus acris). Tall and elegant they sway in the breeze and turn their heads to follow sun. These two plants are characteristic of dry machair plant communities.
Next comes the stylish ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) stately parading amongst the drifts of birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) which form pools of molten gold among the fresh green  grass.
These are not rare plants, and once hay fields across Britain would have been filled with similar flora  delighting the eye and humming with the sound of bees.
In the wetter parts of the machair the flowers of other species appear adding different colour notes to the palette.
Viola rivinianaEach year is different and after a very wet winter and an unusually moist early spring the machair appears to be particularly verdant. Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana) is not a plant that I normally associate with machair, but this year it clothed some of drier banks, which rise above some of the moister grassland, with swathes of blue.


Common dog violet with birdsfoot trefoil

As the month progresses the squat spikes of the first marsh orchids begin to appear.  Short and plump and varying wildly in colour from magenta to salmon pink, the scattered early marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza incarnata) punctuate the flora tapestry.
Early Marsh Orchid Ladys SmockTall willowy spikes of lady’s smock or cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) with their dainty, tissue paper flowers mark the areas of damp grassland; a warning to step carefully and look for some of the smaller flowers that also like wet feet.
Amongst the rushes and mosses are scattered groups of common butterwort, a plant with carnivorous habits. Its lime green leaves excrete sticky fluids to attract insects and then curl around to digest the trapped victims.

Common Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris

Common Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris

As the water begins to seep around your boots as you walk towards the wet margins of the lochs, clumps of marsh marigolds or kingcups (Caltha palustris) sit in the boggy areas or in the bottom of the ditches. An exuberant buttercup creating flashes of yellow against the water’s edge.Kingcups