Searching For Marsh Saxifrage (pt1)

Davie Black

Davie Black

Conservation Coordinator

25th September 2017

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Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus) © Michael Scott

One of Scotland’s rare wildflowers that Plantlife has an interest in is Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus). Well, we would as we have a couple of hundred plants on our Munsary Peatlands reserve in Caithness.

It does have a very scattered distribution: Caithness, the Monadhliath Mountains south of Inverness, a couple of spots in the hills of the Aberdeenshire/Moray border, the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh, and very recently a location in Perthshire. And it is not widespread in these locations, hence its rarity.

We know very little about how well it is surviving across Scotland, so this summer Plantlife organised some surveys with volunteer help to count the number of flowering plants at each location.

It likes to grow in mineral-rich seepage springs on slopes mostly, which is a reason why it is not more widespread, as the chemical and hydrological conditions that it requires are not very common. They are also quite a hike in from the nearest road, so it makes for a challenging outing to find and count the plants.

The first of the surveys was deep in the Pentland Hills sites, south of Edinburgh. Its flowering period is quite late in the season and quite short too, from the mid to end of July through August. But this can be variable depending on the weather during the summer.

The last weekend in July seemed like a good time to catch it flowering at its more southerly Scottish location, and I went out with Kristy and William, who volunteered to help with the survey.

Parking off the A70, it was a walk up the track then through the gate with the open hill stretching before us. Grass turned to heather, with flatter, squelchier bits advertised by bright green Sphagnum mosses.

Getting to the general area was a fairly straightforward hike of an hour and a half, and very enjoyable as light clouds scudded across the sky, with the promised rain seeming a distant way off.

A GPS unit was essential to guide us to the actual location when we got close, as marsh saxifrage exists in a very small part of the wet flush seeping down the moor, where the vegetation isn’t too lush. There are five separate spots where it grows here, fortunately quite close together, so we headed for the first, Garvel Syke.

We found the conveniently placed wooden stake marking the spot and it look ideal – very wet, low-growing mosses and delicate grasses and sedges, dotted with the yellow flowers of Lesser Spearwort.

Looking around we checked yellow flower after yellow flower, but none had the blush of orange freckles around the petals. We had to look closer then, getting right up close to the ground to see if we could spot the leaves. We found some spikes of Marsh Arrowgrass Triglochin palustris; a very slender plant and easily overlooked if not in flower. But still no marsh saxifrage.

Then Kristy found it, a small shoot, about 2cm high, then another, and I found a third nearby. That was it at this flush, after close examination of the low ground vegetation. Sheep had been there nibbling the vegetation close to the ground, and the marsh saxifrage was sheltering in the lee of a clump of unpalatable rushes.

On to the second site, up the rushing burn and hopping across back and forth as it cut its way through the steep hillside. Banks of Wild thyme Thymus basked in the pale sunlight, showing that this was indeed a place that had mineral-rich rocks of the sort that marsh saxifrage also liked. The spot here had a new fence around it to protect it from browsing animals. The flush was quite obvious, but the yellow flowerheads of Marsh Saxifrage were not on view. Nor, after close inspection, could any of the vegetative shoots be found.

The remaining locations also had a new fence around them to keep the deer and sheep out. Again after close inspection of the likely areas no bright yellow flowerheads were found.

Were we too early? I wouldn’t have thought so as in previous years it has been found in full flower at this time much further north from Edinbugh, so we were expecting to see something. We will try again next year to see if the fences that keep the sheep and deer out have helped the Marsh Saxifrage to flower and set seed.

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