Under the radar in Aladdin’s garden

Loch Lomond NNR

There are some species on the reserves all year round and you barely give them a glance until, at a particular moment in the season you suddenly can’t tear your eyes from them. They might go under the radar for much of the year, but when the time is right, the plants have their own moment, when they suddenly scream “I’m here”! Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) at Loch Lomond is one of them.

Down at Low Mains there are several guelder-rose bushes on the edge of the wet grassland. They are a small, shrubby bush set against a backdrop of small, medium and large shrubby bushes, so for much of the year unless you are a well-tuned leaf observer you may well miss them.

But in autumn all that changes. As I walked onto the reserve the other day the deep crimson of one of the bushes with its autumn colour change snagged my eye. It was colour that would have been quite at home in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. And close to it, another was well on its way the to developing the same colour but is also dripping with glistening red berries that glowed on a dull day. But this colourful moment is just temporary; once the leaves are off and the berries are eaten by the birds the show will be over until next autumn.

Though the berries look absolutely stunning they are actually mildly toxic when raw and even when cooked have been described at best as ‘not particularly palatable’ and at worse ‘nauseous’. Definitely berries to be enjoyed from a distance and left for the wildlife.

The bushes never get big enough for their wood to be much use. Though interesting an ancient arrow made from guelder-rose was once found preserved in a bog in Aberdeenshire.

But what are the bushes doing here? Guelder-rose tends to grow is damp, wettish woods and that certainly describes this part of the Loch Lomond NNR. It is also an indicator of undisturbed habitat, often in long-standing, ancient woodland which can be the most wildlife-rich of woodland habitat. So again that fits for Loch Lomond NNR.

Philip Gilbert Hamerton writing in the late 1800s in the ‘Sylvan Year’, described guelder-rose: “For anyone who enjoys the sight of red berries in the most jewel-like splendor, there is nothing in winter like the Viburnum, ………and if you meet with a fine specimen just when it is caught by the level rays of a crimson sunset, you will behold a shrub that seems to come from the that garden of Aladdin where the fruit of the trees were jewels”. Worth looking out for them.

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