Friday, 28 August 2015

The Climber's plants of Lakeland

Nameless Gully on the SW side of Robinson above Buttermere.
THE experts will tell you there may be up to 18.000 varieties of flowers, plants, mosses and ferns growing in the Lakeland hills, but there must be very few people, if any, able to recognise them all. Once I sat down on a shoulder of Grasmoor one very hot afternoon to do a count and found about 30 within the space of a few yards, but I could only identify about a third of them. I wish I was a better botanist. One of my climbing friends fills me with envy by his ability to recognise mountain flowers, ferns—and even trees in their winter garb—without hesitation. He will sometimes pause on his way up a steep crack or chimney on a little-climbed crag to pick out of some crevice a tiny flower or bit of grass, telling me its name and perhaps tucking it away in his pocket for later study. A scramble up any fell side beck must give him much more pleasure than it would do those of us who move about with much less experienced eyes. But even a little knowledge about the flowers of the fells is rewarding, and fairly easily obtained by a little study and patience.

Pyramedal Bugle:Kentmere.Photo Cumbria Botany
It is important, however, that the locations of the rarer plants should not be revealed for depredation is an increasing menace, and climbers and walkers should never dig out specimens and should restrict their picking  for identification purposes to the minimum. Lakeland's rarest flower, the red alpine catchfly, grows on the steep face of Hobcarton Crag, but it is not easy to find unless you know the exact spot.

The only other locality in Britain for this rare plant—apart from a reported sighting on Coniston Old Man—is said to be high in the hills at the head of Glen Cova in the Highlands. Hobcarton Crag was bought by the Friends of the Lake District many years ago because of its importance as a botanical treasure house and presented to the National Trust. Alpine Campion is also said to grow on the crag, but this shattered pile of blue grey Skiddaw slate is chiefly remarkable to the casual visitor for its bright green hanging gardens of bilberry which grow here in greater profusion than I have seen elsewhere.

A favourite mountain flower of mine is the tiny eye-bright and I have heard that the Lakeland variety is also found in Snowdonia but, so far as is at present known, nowhere else in the world. Probably the highest growing plant in Lakeland must be the dwarf willow—the smallest British shrub, often barely an inch high. This can be found on the top of the Scafells and on other high peaks, including Helvellyn, while comparatively rare plants grow in some of the deepest ravines in the central fells.

Classic Lakeland Gully. The G3 scramble 'Lorton's Gully' 
These include alpine Saw Wort (Saussurea alpina—named after de Saussure who inspired the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1777) which may be found around Pillar, in Piers Gill, and among the rocks of Striding Edge. Botanists will tell you that among the rarer plants of Lakeland is the shrubby cinquefoil, the only mountain plant, outside the eyebright and the hawkweeds, which is not also found, usually in much greater profusion in the Highlands. They say you will find it on The Screes above Wastwater and also around Pillar Rock: at one time it was found on Red Screes but has not been seen there for some years. Moss campion used to grow near Grisedale Tarn although I doubt, with the tourist traffic around there, whether it still survives.

Many of the coves under the summit ridge of Helvellyn used to contain several comparatively rare plants but many have disappeared during the last half century. The lovely pink cushions of moss campion are also found near several of the least visited crags and purple saxifrage sometimes hangs in festoons around the Helvellyn ridges. Climbing up a mountain beck towards the ridges the walker may encounter many typical Lakeland plants, each one growing at more or less its most suitable height above sea level.

Euphrasia rivularis: Keppel Cove, Helvellyn.Photo-Cumbrian Botany
The common ladies' mantle of the meadows is also found in at least two species above 2,000 feet, the alpine variety being smaller with beauti-fully shaped leaves and an underlining of shining silvery hairs. The yellow saxifrage and star saxifrage, which are found in the wet ground lower down the fell, may also be growing in the gills, the former with its bright yellow flowers and deep orange stamens and the latter with its white star, crimson stamens and a yellow spot on each petal. The cut leafed saxifrage with its creamy white flowers may also be found near the mountain becks. The bilberry or blaeberry with its pretty pink flowers will probably also be growing nearby, while on the banks and along the lower ridges will be the little flowers that can bring so much colour to a June walk in the hills—wild thyme, heath bedstraw, common speedwell, some of the hawkweeds and the tormentil, the last named also being found near the summits.

And also mountain sorrel, dog violet, angelica, butterwort, alpine meadow rue and the lovely harebell. The hawkweeds of Lakeland are interesting. More than 70 years ago a clergyman botanist found two species of hawkweed for the first time in Britain on the side of Kirk Fell and they were not reported again until found in the same place 65 years later.

For a lifetime these two rare species—two plants of each—had apparently remained in this one wild spot in Lakeland, and nowhere else in Britain so far as is known. The crowberry will be found flowering n the fells in May or June and even buttercups sometimes survive quite high up in the mountains. The cowberry may sometimes be seen, often growing among the bilberry, and recognisable by its pale flesh coloured flowers and, later, its red berries. And then there are the juniper, the ling and the bell heather—indeed, many varieties of heaths and heathers—and a long list of berried plants, and the ferns and the mosses and of course the bracken —a menace to the farmer, but a beautiful changing carpet of colour, especially in autumn. One of my favourite flowers of the mountains is the delicate Grass of Parnassus, with its beautiful little petals, rather like a bleached buttercup but the flowers faintly streaked, almost like watermarks on writing paper.

Another beautiful little flower is the mountain or bird's eye primrose, which has pink lilac blooms with a yellow centre and leaves covered with white down. The mountain avens is also, particularly lovely flower. Its pure white petals is dark green leaves contrasting with the pink of the moss campion and the rich colour of the purple mountain saxifrage. The snow saxifrage has been found on Scafell, Helvellyn and High Street, while the alpine poa grass and black sedge are among the rarities seen in the eastern fells, and the common water starwort has been reported growing in Hard Tarn in Ruthwaite Cove. It is said that several carnivorous and insect eating plants grow on the western side of Derwentwater. One of these, the native sundew, is said to be capable of digesting meat as well as insect life, having perhaps acquired the taste in recent years from discarded sandwich fillings.

In the woods above Lodore grows, besides a very beautiful and comparatively rare fern, the yellow flowered cow-wheat which flourishes where there are plenty of ants. It is said that the seeds closely resemble ants eggs and that the ants, doubtless considerably baffled, bundle them about in all directions, thus spreading the seeds which quickly germinate. Also in the woods above Borrowdale may be found water and wood avens, goose grass, bedstraw, creeping thyme, burdock, snake weed, white and yellow water lilies, the giant horsetail, meadow sweet, ragged robin and the little eye-bright.

Grasmere is a good area for ferns while the limestone country around Kendal has produced the true maiden-hair. There's no doubt that the ability to recognise mountain plants can add immensely to the enjoyment of a day in the fells, in the same way as can some knowledge of mountain birds, the ways of sheep, the meaning of old tracks, the story of the old stone walls, the history of the miners of long ago, the movement of the clouds and a hundred and One other wonderful things that all help to make our mountains such fascinating places. But, most of all, we must learn to use our eyes for far too many of us walk to the crags or the mountain tops and see nothing, or at least very little that really matters.

A Harry Griffin: The Climber:September 1965