Found across bogs and moorlands, the sulphur-yellow star shaped bog asphodel offers a luminous speckle of colour in the Scottish hills. Flowering from June to August when it has 12 star-like bright yellow flowers, then fruiting in autumn when the plant turns a deep orange, bog asphodel is an important source of pollen for insects. Often found on damp peaty soils with its pyramidal flower spikes, bog asphodel also offers food to caterpillars. As well as being an attractive plant, and of ecological importance, bog asphodel has a number of uses and has been used historically as a source of saffron and for producing a hair-dye.
The genus name 'Narthecium' identifies the plant as a Bog Asphodel and its species name 'ossifragum' means 'bone-breaking plant'. This name came from folklore when people believed that the livestock that grazed on it got brittle bones. However, it was actually the calcium-poor pastures that caused the problem. It is native to Western Europe, found on wet, boggy moorlands up to about 1,000 m (3,300 ft) in elevation. The bright orange fruits have been used as a colourant to replace saffron by Shetland Islanders. Despite the plant's English name "bog asphodel", it is not particularly closely related to the true asphodels. In addition to other forms of pollination, this plant is adapted to rain-pollination.
Tormentil, a low-lying creeping perennial often found in heathland and moors, is a four petalled yellow flower which appears from May to September. It is another vital provider of nectar for bees and acts as an important indicator of an area’s biodiversity levels.
Pre-clearance Scotland saw Tormentil used as a dye and for tanning leather. A blood red liquid will ooze out of the roots when cut. This liquid contains a high tannin content, making it an excellent dye. However the liquid is best kept away from our tongues as it has a bitter tannin taste.
Other uses of tormentil once included medicine. Herbalists once proclaimed that it could cure toothache with its strongly astringent properties (astringent meaning a chemical that shrinks or constricts body tissues. The word derives from the Latin adstringere, which means "to bind fast"). This makes it useful for relieving swelling, chapping and soreness.
The ubiquitous bog cotton is a perennial herbaceous plant in the family Cyperaceae, (Sedge family), which often resembles grasses or rushes. Differentiating between plants in this family can be difficult, but thankfully we have a rhyme:
“Sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses have nodes where leaves are found”.
As always there are exceptions to this rule, but for Bog Cotton, it holds true. One of the first flowering plants of the new year. As with Sphagnum mossand other bog plants, bog cotton has developed unique adaptations to surviving in the challenging growing conditions of a bog, a water-logged and nutrient-poor environment. The plant has air canals in its roots and stems. These canals allow oxygen to be transported deep down to the roots of the plant and can be buried up to 60 cm in wet bog pools.
Bog cotton tends to grow on the drier parts of the bog, forming hummocks or clumps which creates a drier environment for its growth. Its leaves are long and slender, helping it to conserve water during the summer, when the bog dries out and it may be vulnerable to desiccation.
Michael Longley’s poem describes bog cotton as the “stauncher of wounds” suggests that the bog landscape might yet yield a life-affirming alternative to the association of bogs with burial of victims.
“It hangs on by a thread, denser than thistledown,
Reluctant to fly, a weather vane that traces
The flow of cloud shadow over monotonous bog –
And useless too, though it might well bring to mind
The plumpness of pillows, the staunching of wounds”