By Sarah Bird, Project Officer, Species on the Edge – North Scotland Coast, working for Plantlife
Scottish Primrose season is coming. Our most special wildflower will be in bloom soon. I am always thrilled to see this tiny, fragile and beautiful flower and remember that it ONLY grows on our north coast, and on Orkney, and nowhere else in the world. In a way it ‘belongs’ to Scotland’s north coast communities – it is ours to love and protect and nurture. The responsibility is ours alone. Scottish Primrose is a north coast priority species for Species on the Edge, and, as I start my work with the project, it fills me with excitement and privilege, but it’s also a bit daunting!
Over the four years of the project I (with help!) need to visit all the places on the north coast where it grows and count the plants. This will help us to see if the Scottish Primrose numbers are stable, increasing or decreasing. The same is happening on Orkney to give a clear picture of how the whole population of this special plant is faring.
Any plant or animal that is only found in one small region is at risk of extinction. This is particularly true for Scottish Primrose because it is fussy and only grows in places where it finds the special conditions it needs.
Where to look:
Most Scottish Primrose sites are within a few hundred metres of the sea. The best places to look for it are:
- just beyond the sea spray zone, where the turf is short and there is some bare ground, especially in wet areas that run down towards the shore.
- in exposed gullies on cliffs and headlands where wind keeps vegetation very low.
I am told there are a few places, mainly in Caithness, where it grows further from the sea, and I am looking forward to seeing these as the primroses are said to be taller here.
When to look:
Scottish Primrose has two flowering times each year: in spring (usually May) and summer (usually July to August), though not every plant will flower in spring and summer. There is usually a break in flowering in June. However, plants are affected by conditions each year so flowering time can vary – I have seen flowers from April through to October. I even saw one in November last year!
What to look out for:
Scottish Primrose is tiny – only a few centimetres tall- with grey-green stems and leaves. The leaf colour makes them stand out from most other plants. I have been confused by leaves of daisies which are similar in size, but brighter green.
Scottish Primrose leaves
The leaves form a rosette which is often less than 6cm across. Flowers have five pinkish-purple heart-shaped petals and a yellow centre; the petals can turn darker bluish-purple as they age. Each flower stem carries a cluster of flowers called an umbel. The flowers are like garden primula flowers but MUCH smaller – less than 1cm across.
Scottish primrose flowers are pollinated by a range of insects, including hoverflies, but flowers often fertilise themselves without needing insects. It is likely that cross-pollination by insects may result in more vigorous plants that live longer.
Why is it rare?
Inevitably, a plant that is only found in one small region is at risk from extinction. We know that Scottish Primrose is fussy and isn’t able to compete with the taller plants. To flourish, Scottish Primroses need very short grass created by wind exposure or by grazing animals. Grazing by sheep and rabbits can be really important to allow the primroses to grow without being smothered by taller vegetation, and some bare earth in footprints and tracks allows seeds to grow. However, careful grazing management is vital to allow the primroses to flower and set seed between May and August. Over-grazing can be as damaging as under-grazing. Putting fertiliser on fields also encourages vigorous plants which crowd out Scottish Primroses.
Scottish Primroses struggle to compete with taller plants in a meadow.
Climate change also threatens Scottish Primrose
Scottish Primrose could also be vulnerable to climate change. In principle, a slightly warmer climate might suit it, as it grows better in milder conditions. However, increased winter storms (linked to global warming) could have a damaging impact on the coastal and clifftop places where it grows.
Please tell us if you find Scottish Primroses
Details of how to send us your records are here.