The History of Labrador Tea on Flanders

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.

Labrador tea plant

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.

Volunteers pulling out labrador tea in November 2015
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6 Responses to The History of Labrador Tea on Flanders

  1. Pingback: Tea on the bog | 2 bogs, a swamp and some islands

  2. Pingback: Volunteers vs bog invaders | 2 bogs, a swamp and some islands

  3. Zoe A says:

    Really enjoyed reading this Ellen! Has been a useful resource of information when writing content about it in Zepto for Flanders Moss. Great to hear the story of it’s initial discovery!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Colin Wells says:

    I would be really interested to know whether SNH has followed a solid evidence-based approach prior to deciding to treat this intriguing plant as an invasive weed – and what this might be. As far as I am aware there are no firm grounds to dismiss the distinct possibility that Labrador Tea could well be native – at least in many parts of its recorded UK range. Research in North America indicates that its wind-dispersed seeds do not travel very far for example. Given that the vast majority of UK stands are in very remote places – and known colonies are quite widely dispersed geographically – it therefore seems unlikely that it might have been deliberately introduced by human agency in a haphazard and random manner. Furthermore, in Scotland there has been a very recent discovery of a small long-established clump in a very remote part of a bog in the south-west Highlands – in an area traditionally frequented by Greenland white-fronted geese. You could argue this adds credence to the view that seeds might have been carried here by over-wintering birds. I do hope SNH are not making a serious mistake here.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Bog laurel on the moss | 2 bogs, a swamp and some islands

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