The wild flowers of St Cyrus

Simon Ritchie has been working at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve since he was 16 – initially as a volunteer, he is currently employed as a Seasonal Reserve Officer. Here Simon talks about one of the many features that make this reserve such a special place to visit at this time of year.

There are a lot of things I love about St Cyrus National Nature Reserve (NNR); the people, the landscape, the history, the birds, the butterflies, I could go on forever. However, one of the features that tugs on my heart strings the most at St Cyrus are the wildflowers. The botanical life at St Cyrus is astounding! It is one of the reasons that St Cyrus was designated an NNR back in 1962. The plant communities at St Cyrus are more characteristic of 200 miles further south: we have a lot of southern species that are at their northern range here.

Dune grassland

St Cyrus dune grassland

This is mainly due to our neutral, base rich soils and mild climate. The dune grassland at St Cyrus is sheltered in among volcanic andesite and basalt cliffs that stretch to 75 metres on one side and a protective dune ridge on the other. This provides a more sheltered, mild climate which allows the flowers to grow. We have over 250 species of flowering plants on the reserve, some of which are extremely rare in Scotland. This rich floristic diversity also in-turn boosts our Lepidoptera numbers; we are the best site in North-East Scotland for butterflies and moths!

Brimstone moth

Brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteolata) on gorse

One of the rare plants at St Cyrus is Nottingham catchfly (Silene nutans). It is named Nottingham catchfly because it was first found on the walls of Nottingham castle. St Cyrus is one of the few sites in Scotland in which this plant occurs. It is a very characteristic plant with a pinkish-white colouration and hairy leaves. This plant is carnivorous and feeds on night-flying insects, including moths!

Nottingham Catchfly (Silene nutans)

Nottingham catchfly (Silene nutans)

The nationally important dune grassland at St Cyrus really comes into its own in mid-summer; it’s like walking through paradise! As you walk through our ‘Floor’y Meads’ trail (flowery meadows in north-east Scots) the first thing that becomes apparent is the colour. The yellow of the lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) is extremely vivid. It carpets much of the dune grassland along with the subtle pinks of restharrow (Ononis repens). In among the carpet of yellow and pink we get clumps of clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) which provide a dark, rich purple colour.

Clustered Bellflower on the Dune Grassland

Clustered bellflower on dune grassland

White is another colour dominant in the dune grassland; eyebright (Euphrasia sp.) covers the shorter areas of grassland and provides a nice colour contrast to the yellow, pink and purple. Other plants that occur on the dune grassland and provide a lovely mix of colour include; maiden pink (Dianthus deltoides), yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) and the ‘deep’ purple of bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum).

Bloody Cranesbill

Bloody cranesbill

As well as  a pleasant sensory overload on your eyes, dune grassland is also an extremely fragrant habitat; it smells phenomenal! The strong smelling restharrow is locally known as ‘stinking oxters’ in which ‘oxters’ is a Scots name for armpit. Although to give it it’s due, I rather like the smell! We have lots of wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) which is actually the same herb as oregano that you would have on your pizza! Wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) fills the air with a delightful fragrance and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) also produces an extremely sweet smell. If only smell-o-vision was invented!

Wild thyme

Wild thyme

It’s not only the dune grassland that boasts a species-rich flower community, the whole reserve is a haven for flowers of all different types! That’s why I love St Cyrus NNR, there is always something to see no matter what part of the reserve you are on, and what time of year you are visiting. If you want to visit St Cyrus specifically to see the dune grassland and the vast plethora of flowers, then Mid-July is the best time to visit. It’s when the grassland is at its most vivid in colour!

Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella)

Northern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella)

If you do visit St Cyrus NNR, be sure to pop into the office and say hi! If I am not in the office, I am more likely out on the reserve, crouched over on the dune grassland smelling the flowers…

Thanks for reading!

Simon Ritchie – Seasonal Nature Reserve Assistant at St Cyrus NNR

 

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