Wild Flowers - Botanical North Stars

Shetland's botanical stars are a few species of hawkweed and a chickweed that grow nowhere else but there are many different plant habitats providing dazzling displays of colour, ranging from marches and meadows to arctic-alpine tundra.

Because the islands are so isolated, so far north, so cold and so windy, there are only about 400 plant species. However, in ravines, on ungrazed islets and, above all, in the 'hanging gardens' of the cliffs there are still vivid relics of the far more luxuriant vegetation that clothed the islands thousands of years ago.

Sandy Beaches

Plants adapted to extreme saltiness, dryness, high winds and lack of nutrients cling to shifting sands and shingle banks on the lower shores. They include Sea Rocket, Silverweed, Sea Sandwort, Sea Mayweed, Goosegrass and the extremely rare Oysterplant.

A little further inland, on the sandy links above the beaches, there's a striking display of summer flowers, dominated by Tufted Vetch, Bird's-Foot Trefoil and Yarrow. Other flowers include Daisy, Buttercup, Silverweed, Selfheal, Eyebright, Field and Autumn Gentian.

The Coastal Cliffs - Shetland's Hanging Gardens

Da Banks, or sea cliffs, have some of the lushest vegetation in the islands. Along the closely-grazed turf of the clifftops Sea Pink and the tiny blue flowers of Spring Squill are prominent from late May through to early July. On ungrazed sections they're joined by Sea Plantain, Buck's-Horn Plantain and, on the more sheltered cliffs, by Roseroot, Sea Campion, Red Campion, Scurvy Grass, Bird's-Foot Trefoil, Sheep's-Bit and Thyme. These species all flourish despite the poor soils, rapid drainage and exposure to violent winter winds and salt spray.

Roseroot copes by having very succulent leaves which they conserve fresh water, similar to cactus plant. Spring Squill, Sea Pink and Sea Plantain do the same, while Scots Lovage, another plant frequent on inaccessible cliffs, adapts to the short growing season in Shetland by maximising growth early in the year.

How Green Were Our Valleys...

The profusion of plant life on the cliffs - in what amounts to a frigid, salt-lashed desert, lead one to wonder just how green the hills and valleys of Shetland must have been, before humans imported sheep and fire some 7,000 years ago.

In just a few places some stunted native trees have survived, such as the single Hazel at Catfirth in Nesting, the Rowans on loch islands in Northmavine and Shetland's last wild Crab-apples on a cliff face at Fora Ness in Delting. In recent years the Shetland Amenity Trust has sponsored schemes to restore at least some of Shetland's native trees and shrubs, helped by many enthusiastic local gardeners.

The Arctic Alpines

On Shetland's highest summit, Ronas Hill (1,475' / 450m) conditions can be as extreme as the top of Cairngorm. Vegetation is sparse and plants have adapted by growing low, creeping or forming hummocks on bare, exposed granite debris. About 15 Arctic-Alpine species grow on the hill, including Alpine Lady's Mantle and Moss Campion.

The eastern hills of Unst are not as high but, because of the peculiar geochemistry of the rocks on the Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve, a similar tundra-like habitat of stony soils has developed. Here grow the only examples in the world of Edmondston's (Shetland) Mouse-ear, a beautiful little chickweed named after Unst's famous 19th century teenage botanist, Thomas Edmondston, killed accidentally in Peru while on an expedition in the steps of Charles Darwin.

Floral Roadsides

Road verges are one of Shetland's floral surprises. They are usually ungrazed and support a wide variety of flowers absent from the pastures on the other side of the fence. Primrose, Devil's-Bit Scabious, Autumn Hawkbit and Red Campion are common, along with grasses. A walk along a winding Shetland side road in early summer is a botanist's delight.

Traditional Croftland

Traditional crofting created botanically diverse habitats particularly valuable for wildlife. Hayfields (no longer common in Shetland) and carefully managed grazing encourage gentians and orchids.

Drier meadows support many grasses including Sweet Vernal Grass - which gives dried its special smell. Amongst the grasses, Meadow Buttercup, Yellow Rattle, Devil's-Bit Scabious and Autumn Hawkbit dominate, accompanied by Red and White Clover, Common Mouse Ear and Eyebright, another semi-parasitic plant which takes advantage of the root systems of its host.

Sedges, Marsh Cinquefoil, Ragged-Robin and Lady's Smock favour wet meadows while tall herbs such as Meadowsweet and Angelica do better in areas where there's little or no grazing. Burns and ditches glow with Marsh Marigold, Monkey Flower and Yellow Flag.

After several decades when large areas of agricultural land in Shetland were re-seeded, drained and given heavy applications of lime and fertiliser, many crofters and farmers are now involved in government-funded environmental improvement schemes to restore and improve traditional crofting habitats. There are special payments for cutting grass for silage later in the season, allowing nesting birds to fledge and wild flowers to set seed.

Wild Flowers and the Law

All plants are protected by law in the UK, including more than 150 species with special protection.

It is an offence to destroy or uproot any wild plant (unless this is accidental or permission has been given by the owner or occupier of the land) or to pick any of the specially protected plants, possess any part of them or advertise them for sale.

Wild flowers are best appreciated in the wild, where they belong and where others can come and enjoy their beauty. So take photos, please, not specimens.

What Next?

On This Site

  • Read more about Shetland's Nature
  • The beaches in Shetland are good places to spot some diverse flora

From Other Sites

  • Download a Shetland Heritage leaflet about Shetland's wild flowers (.pdf)
  • Read the wild flower section of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory's website
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