Wednesday 13 July 2011

Spurious Spurrey

Going on holiday in a group can be a bit of a logistical nightmare. Admittedly, the Tense Towers team are only three in number, but as Our Lass wasn't allowed to put any weight on her left knee during the whole of our time in Orkney, things could've been rather fraught. Fortunately, all the preparation beforehand paid off and everyone we met was helpfulness personified.

Inevitably, it was occasionally frustrating for her that she couldn't go rock pooling or climb to the top of the lighthouse, but as she built up her upper body strength whilst using her crutches, new goals became possible. Lowering her sights, literally, put her in the realm of small flowers that would ordinarily have been overlooked in the search for larger Northern Isles life forms: seals, killer whales, red necked phalaropes, Simon King, black guillemots, otters, etc.

A short, grassy track from the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory led to a five barred gate, beyond which was the preserve of the seaweed-eating sheep. From the low cliffs could be seen a rocky beach and the swirling waters of the North Ronaldsay Firth and the Atlantic Ocean.

Initially with plenty of rest stops, Our Lass trod this 300m track with a monotonous "click, thump" rhythm, in order to reach the nirvana of a wild vista beyond the sheep dyke. Whilst the Admiral and I were intent on photographing Black Guillemots, she innocently pointed out a wee flower that we had walked past umpteen times. Binoculars were wielded, cameras were deployed, Ohs and Ums were oh-ed and um-ed, heads were scratched. Then politeness cut in and we scratched our own heads, before realisation finally dawned. Yes, we definitely don't know what this is.

It's a... er...hmmm?
The small white-centred, pink flower, no more than 8mm across, had 5 petals and grew in small clumps (technical botanical term) on the bare sandy clifftop. Later, in the bar (where else), recourse to a copy of Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (Blamey, Fitter and Fitter), narrowed it down to a Sea-spurrey, Spergularia, but which one? Sand (rubra), Greater (media), Lesser (marina), Rock (rupicola), Greek (bocconei)? Only Greater and Lesser are known in Orkney, as Sand has supposedly not made the jump to the Northern Isles. It was definitely not Greek, as there wasn't a bouzouki player for miles, nor was it Rock which appears to be a plant of the west coast of Britain.

The defining characteristic seemed to be the comparative length of petals to sepals. Longer equals Greater, shorter equals Lesser. We couldn't even agree on this and I reckoned they were the same length anyway, which brought Rock back into the frame.

Oh, we're rubbish at botany, if you hadn't already guessed!

So, dear reader (presuming that you are still paying attention and haven't wandered off to do something more meaningful), can you help? Are you the world authority on Sea-spurrey or even someone for whom the ratio of petal to sepal is but a trifle? To be honest, I think the North Ronaldsay sheep probably stood a better chance of working it out than we did.


Katie (Nature ID) said...

Great post, as usual! I have a hard enough time figuring things out on my own; I can't imagine trying to identify via committee. That is a tiny flower. Good to see there are benefits to crutches. Wishing Your Lass well.

Imperfect and Tense said...

Thanks, Katie. The Admiral and I usually abdicate all floral responsibility to Our Lass, as the botanical expert of the Tense Towers team. She will probably be the first to admit that her knowledge is nowhere near comprehensive, it's just the Admiral and I are shockingly poor on flower ID. Reading botanical posts by your good self and others, like Phil at Cabinet of Curiosities, is a real education for me. I hope some of it sticks in my head!

To belatedly, but cryptically, answer one of your previous queries, take a look at:

Once you've worked out the question, the answer will be obvious!

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Um, yes, that is very cryptic. ???