Country diary: two decades on, an unfamiliar bloom is finally identified

Claxton, Norfolk: An old photo – plus a scree of reference books – brings alive a flower of Scottish mountains that I spotted on Cairn Gorm in 1998: the tiny trailing azalea

For naturalists there is no substitute for being among it all. Yet not all natural history can be achieved in the field. Entomologists and mycologists make some determinations based on details that are micrometres in length. There are plants that can be recognised only by adpressed hairs on the bracteoles. Specimens or photographs are sometimes necessary for subsequent identification.

Yet I don’t often wait two decades for fulfilment. We were coming off Cairn Gorm in June 1998 when I photographed an unfamiliar bloom hugging a slope of lichen-smothered schist. I love these high-altitude plants, especially those that yield a drop of sweetness for their fellow mountain-dwellers – cowberry, cloudberry, crowberry, bearberry and Arctic bearberry. The names alone conjure their own magical vision.

Several of them form a habitat known as dwarf shrub heath – a kind of inch-high forest adapted to survive in the poorest soils, the highest rainfall, the bitterest winds and year-round cold. It is at once tenacious and heroic, yet also comfortable to walk over and easy to overlook.

I overlooked my patch twice: once on that day of unbelievable blue, when I recall that we saw only five bird species: raven, dotterel, ptarmigan, osprey and snow bunting. The second occasion spans the past two decades, when it lay as a neglected transparency in my study, until I scanned it last week and recognised my plant: trailing or dwarf azalea.

A clump of trailing azalea
A clump of Kalmia procumbens, Britain’s only native azalea. Photograph: Mark Cocker

To have the name but to have lost all memories sent me scrambling across a scree of reference works, notebooks and images of the day. It is a flower of Scottish mountains, possibly found first by the Rev John Lightfoot in 1772 and included in his Flora Scotica of 1778. It is Britain’s only native azalea and occurs in the Alps, Pyrenees and as far south as Croatia. Its five-lobed, cup-like pink corolla is 4mm across.

Alas, some of my companions on that azalea day are not here now, but those mountain plants – humble, prostrate, creeping – tend to live long lives and I like to imagine them through all the intervening years, and to think that come this June they will flourish again as a tiny procumbent patch of pink.


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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