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Plantlife’s Cairngorms Project Manager Sam Jones reveals how a tiny flower in Scotland is fighting back against extinction in the UK, and what we’ve learnt about this mysterious wee plant.
I’ve been spending a lot of time reading what little information there is on One-flowered Wintergreen, Moneses uniflora, during site visits, and chatting with other experts. I’ve been trying to figure out what has caused its sharp decline in abundance and distribution globally, and how we can help prevent it here in Scotland.
The uncomfortable answer I’ve come to is that we still don’t really know all that well. Around 10% of the Scottish population is in the Cairngorms, the rest distributed sparsely across the Highlands. In the last 50 years, I estimate that we’ve lost half of our populations, and of those remaining, only a few are stable or improving. We may soon lose all One-flowered Wintergreen in the UK without intervention.
One-flowered Wintergreen is the only member of its genus Moneses, closely related to Pyrola, a group containing the other wintergreens, such as Intermediate Wintergreen (Pyrola media). Sadly, all are rare and in decline.
True wintergreens are partial-mycoheterotrophs, which means that they have an alternative to photosynthesis for acquiring their energy to grow. They can parasitically take sugars and other minerals from fungus in woodland soils.
This ability to uptake energy from the soil as a supplement to their photosynthesis is likely part of why they are so challenging to understand and to propagate in captivity. There have also been suggestions that the presence of specific fungi is necessary for the tiny powder like seeds to germinate.
One-flowered Wintergreen does not seem to have an easily definable niche. It is very rare, only occurring at specific sites, and often isolated to an area a few tens of metres across in a large and apparently suitable woodland.
Recently, we have had some breakthroughs helping us to understand this plant better. Trials of cattle grazing in woodland have yielded rapid recovery in a One-flowered Wintergreen population. Another site was heavily trampled and disturbed in the process of Rhododendron removal, again yielding rapid recovery of Wintergreen. These plants all seem to recover on sites where bare ground, trampled wood, and organic material are present.
On forestry sites, One-flowered Wintergreen appears to grow only along forestry tracks and where the ground has been historically disturbed. A picture is starting to emerge of this species favouring periodic heavy disturbance of woodland soils.
Armed with this information we are providing advice to current land managers. We are also investigating options for a small-scale trial translocation of One-flowered Wintergreen, as much to aid in our learning of the needs of this rare flower, as to aid the genetic resilience of a small and struggling population.
Thousands of years ago, before significant human alteration to the landscape of Britain, perhaps One-flowered Wintergreen existed in a particular niche. It may have relied on the bare ground made by a wild boar digging for roots in the woodland, or the wood pulp made by a beaver chopping a tree, or the trampled ground under the hoof a mighty Auroch.
In the modern world humans create this niche for them more than animals, and sadly, our modern management of pine woods has favoured it less. Through research and collaboration, we will be able to manage woodlands holistically, providing a mosaic of habitat for One-flowered Wintergreen in Scottish pinewoods, as well as other rare native species.
Discover the activities and work that our volunteers in the Cairngorms do with Sam Jones of the Rare Plants and Wild Connections Project.
Learn about why our Munsary Peatlands reserve is being put forward for inscription as the world’s first peatland UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Plantlife’s Artist in Residence, shares her summer journey across our reserves and some top tips for aspiring botanical artists.
Discover 4 new walk ideas and Scottish spring adventure inspiration from Plantlife Scotland’s Communications and Policy Officer, Erin Shott.
Look, the seasons, they are a-changing and I don’t know about you, but I am so looking forward to that sweet, sweet spring time weather. After the cold winter days and long winter nights, I am so ready to get out there and breathe in the freshness of spring.
I would highly recommend taking a visit to one of Scotland’s rainforests if you have the opportunity. The high rainfall, and mild temperatures result in lush mossy areas just bursting with lichens and bryophytes it really does feel like I’ve stepped into a fairy tale. And if that doesn’t attract your attention then you’ll be impressed with the sheer abundance, diversity, and rarity of the species of Scotland’s rainforest.
It won’t be my first visit to the temperate rainforest; however, I’ve visited Glen Nant in the past. Plantlife has a downloadable handy wild plant walk leaflet for the Glen Nant Important Plant Area (IPA), so it was a solid motivation for a visit for me.
But I hear you ask, what if I don’t want to visit a rainforest site? Looking for something short and located in the central belt?
Then download and check out North Berwick Law, our guide is for a nice 1 mile hike up one iconic hill in East Lothian. Plenty of opportunity to spot wild plants too, like Meadow Saxifrage Saxifraga granulata, this snow-white species is found in dry grasslands, or the hilariously named Cuckooflower Cardamine pratensis, due to its delicate purple flowers starting to bloom just as the cuckoo first begins its call.
If you’re the Munro bagging type, then check out the Ben Nevis IPA, a delightful 10-mile hike that is absolutely rich in Bog Asphodel Narthecium ossifragum a plant once used for its potential as a natural dye or the delightfully carnivorous Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia (image by Michael Scott) which have long red-coloured stalks that are often seen with globules of ‘dew’ hanging from them. These globules are a polysaccharide solution to trap and digest their prey.
If you’re keen to spend a day out in the Cairngorms, take some time to discover Anagach woods IPA. Download your a free guide here. Soak in the wonders of the Caledonian pinewoods, maybe you’ll spot the rare and iconic Twinflower Linnaea borealis? This special plant is a focal point for our Cairngorms Rare Plants Project. You might also find some Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella, with its clover-shaped leaves (that taste like apples), this springtime bloomer has delicate white flowers with lilac coloured veins.
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