Flanders Moss is home to many of the plants and sphagnum mosses that you would expect to find on a Scottish bog such as cotton-grass, bog asphodel and cranberry. However the moss is also famous as a site of the labrador tea plant, a relative of rhododendron. The plant is native to North America and how it arrived at Flanders Moss is still debated amongst botanists.
The presence of labrador tea in this area was first brought to the attention of botanists in 1879 during a school wild flower competition. Nellie Geddes, a local cobbler’s daughter found the plant growing in an area close to Flanders but could not identify it. She was determined to win the Bridge of Allan school contest for having the biggest wild flower collection and so she wrote to the director of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in search of help. In the letter Nellie suggested that the plant might be a Ledum (the genus of labrador tea) and stated that it ‘was said to have been found in Ireland and not mentioned as being got in Scotland’. The gardens wrote back confirming that it was labrador tea and it was listed as native to this area.
In 1946 the plant was found on Flanders moss itself by a professor of Glasgow’s Natural History Society. Over the next 45 years the colony of labrador tea on Flanders exploded, increasing from just 6 to 81 individual plants. Although the bushes only occupied a very small area of the moss (0.2%), there was concern over the potential for rapid spread of the colony. Therefore, two Stirling University undergraduate students, supported by SNH, began researching the colony and found that it was expanding by 7% per year.
Despite previously being celebrated as a native plant here, it is now thought that Labrador tea is an introduced species in the UK. Several theories have been proposed for its presence, the most popular of which is that the seeds were carried here by migrant birds or that it was planted.
We now control labrador tea on Flanders to prevent the colony spreading across the bog. The plants are most easily removed by pulling them out by hand and many volunteers have helped in its control over the years. Whilst out this week cutting Christmas trees on the moss we came across the patch which is still growing but is much smaller than before.