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Plants of mountains, heaths and bogs

Our mountains are the last home to plants that were widespread across Britain when the ice-sheets pulled back leaving a country bare but for rock, rubble and water.  Now they have mostly retreated to the arctic or high mountain ranges in Scandinavia or the Alps but some still make a precarious living on crags and cliffs or summit ground of our Scottish hills.  The spread of sheep and a considerable increase in the numbers of red deer have removed most of the more palatable species from accessible ground but on the best cliffs, such as those on Ben Lui National Nature Reserve, you can still find hanging natural gardens of rare and beautiful plants that are unsurpassed by any other plant habitat in Britain.  Look for species like the globe flower Trollius europeaus or the alpine blue-sow-thistle Cicerbita alpina. Be aware if you visit to not get too carried away with your excitement and remain within your climbing abilities. 

Heathland on the slopes

The huge increases in the number of animals grazing our hills has led to a remarkable change. The woodlands have been removed from nearly all the lower slopes (by the constant grazing of every last seedling) but this enabled heathland species, most famously the heather or ling Calluna vulgaris, to flourish. The result is the purple slopes you see when the heather flowers in August. Burning management, developed to increase the number of red grouse for shooting, helps to maintain and simplify this habitat.

The heaths of the high tops

On the tops of the tallest hills, woodland has never grown and the habitats you find there are, in contrast to the lower slopes, are perhaps the most unmodified habitats in Scotland. The species are mostly subtle like the tiny three-leaved rush Juncus trifidus but look out for such beauties as the purple saxifrage Saxifrage oppositifolia which may provide a splash of colour as early as March.

The blanket of snow

Many mountain plants only live in such places because stronger plants eliminate them elsewhere. Some are relatively frost-sensitive and can only survive where snow builds up in winter to insulate them from the hardest frosts. Climate change is likely to reduce our snow cover and so may it may be winter frost rather than warmer summers that threaten these plants in future. Plants such as the blue heath Phyllodoce caerulea which is found in Scotland only in the mid-season snow beds at Drumochter and on Ben Alder which used to melt in early June, may be living now on borrowed time. The plants of the summits, like the three-leaved rush, are blown clear of snow and able to survive the hardest frosts.  For them the appearance of grasses from milder zones is the greatest threat from changing climate. 


The blanket bog which covers the gentler slopes of many of our hills and mountains is a difficult place for plants to grow. Constantly waterlogged and cut-off from soils, rocks and other sources of nutrients by the deep layer of peat, only a small number of flowering plants do well here. Tussocks of hare's-tail cotton grass build up over time and in all but the wettest areas three shrubs: heather, cross-leaved heath and crowberry are widespread. Cloudberry and dwarf cornel are two attractive plants at the southern edge of their range in Scotland which are blanket peat specialists, rarely occurring in other habitats. Few woody species or trees can tolerate the permanently wet conditions but the tiny dwarf birch finds a home on blanket peat where burning doesn't take place and levels are low.

Last updated on Monday 14th December 2015 at 15:00 PM. Click here to comment on this page