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PLANTS IN CUMBRIA

The county has an extremely rich flora for such a northern latitude. Over 1300 species have been recorded, but about one quarter of these would be regarded as aliens. It is interesting to note that Hampshire, supposedly enjoying the benefits of a warmer climate, only has about 1500 species.

Climate varies enormously within the county. Rainfall can be relatively low on the fringes of Morecambe Bay and in the Eden valley, but the highest in England in the central valleys of the Lake District. Seasonal temperature variations are most extreme on the fells, while coastal areas surrounding Morecambe Bay and the Solway have less variation between summer and winter due to the influence of the Gulf Stream.

The igneous rocks of the central mountains are surrounded by belts of slate, limestone and sandstone. This provides a good variety of plant habitats, each with its own characteristic flora.

REPRESENTATIVE PLANT COMMUNITIES IN CUMBRIA

1. SALTMARSH

Sea Lavender

The saltmarsh swards are heavily grazed and become submerged on only the highest spring tides. Salt-tolerant plants found all round the Cumbrian coast are Common Scurvy-grass, Sea Aster and Thrift. Sea Lavender can provide a colourful display in late summer, notably on North Walney and the Kent Estuary, but is surprisingly scarce north of Ravenglass.

2. RAISED BOG

Along the shore of Morecambe Bay, in places where the sea formerly penetrated further inland than it does today, inland beaches have turned into raised bog. Here, and on the huge expanse of the Solway Plain, poor drainage led to an accumulation of Sphagnum and the formation of layers of peat. Gradually these rose in a dome above the surrounding land. Such raised bogs have a characteristic flora of Cotton Grass, White Beak-sedge, Bog Asphodel, Bog Rosemary, Cranberry and the insectivorous Sundew. Sadly, the Marsh Gentian is now a rarity in the county (occurring at only two sites) having been lost from Foulshaw Moss and other sites.

3. SAND DUNE AND SHINGLE

Dunes at SandscaleAt the entrance to Morecambe Bay the dune systems of Sandscale Haws and North Walney are the finest in the county. The dune slacks are more alkaline than many and produce spectacular displays of Marsh Helleborine, Early and Northern Marsh Orchids, Grass of Parnassus and Round-leaved Wintergreen. More diligent searching will yield numerous specimens of Coralroot and Dune helleborine. Beside old gravel workings on North Walney can be found the only Cumbrian site for Yellow Bartsia. On the higher reaches of the shingle banks Yellow Horned Poppy, Sea Rocket and Sea Campion are established and hold on. The scarce Henbane and Viper's Bugloss can be found but, unfortunately, the rare Oyster plant did not manage to re-establish itself after heavy storms disturbed the shingle, and has been lost.

Further north, the Drigg dunes are more acidic and less interesting from a botanist's point of view. However, Chaffweed and Allseed are found here, almost exclusively for the county, along with the scarce Portland Spurge, Sea Spurge, Blue Fleabane and Adder's Tongue fern.

4. SANDSTONE

The area surrounding Barrow-in-Furness is on sandstone, but the main botanical interest arises from species of wasteland surrounding the docks. French Sorrel, Oxford Ragwort, Eastern Rocket, Perennial Wall-rocket and Yellow-wort are all species which have probably been introduced with ballast used by ships. The parasitic Common Broomrape occurs here at one of its few Cumbrian sites.

Around Carlisle and the Eden valley the sandstone forms low-lying farmland. The main interest is where the river has cut into the rock and formed wooded gorges, as at Armathwaite, and in the areas of uncultivated land, such as the heath at Findlandrigg and roadside verges, where species more normally found in the south occur, such as Dwarf Gorse, Wild Chamomile and Corn Marigold.

5. CARBONIFEROUS LIMESTONE

The richest botany is found on the swathe of limestone crossing the region from Dalton-in-Furness in the west to Hutton Roof in the east. Some of this is exposed pavement, some limestone grassland and there is even limestone cliff in the form of Whitbarrow (now inland) and Humphrey Head, which juts out into Morecambe Bay.

Scoured pavementWhere it is wooded the limestone has Ashwood, but a number of trees also occur at their northern limit. Look out for Small-leaved Lime, Wild Service Tree, Buckthorn, Spindle and Guelder Rose. The two cliffs are home to the endemic species of Whitebeam lancastriensis. On the pavement and grassland are many scarce flowers of limestone, which are the regions jewels. Bloody Cranesbill, Lily of the Valley, Rockrose and Dropwort are commonly encountered. Less obtrusive and harder to find are Dark-red helleborine, Ploughman's-spikenard, Spring Cinquefoil, and Angular Solomon's Seal. Two ferns, Rigid Buckler Fern and Limestone Polypody thrive here, but do so in few other places in Britain. The Hoary Rockrose is found on Scout and Whitbarrow Scars, while Humphrey Head is famous for offering protection on its cliffs to a few plants of three species at their northernmost location in Britain - Goldilocks Aster, Spotted Cat's Ear and Spiked Speedwell.

In the north of the county a narrow band of limestone extends from Greystoke to Cockermouth. While not extensive, there are areas of pavement with a typical limestone flora in the grikes and areas of grassland with cowslip, early purple, butterfly and fragrant orchid.

To the east of the county a huge band of limestone spans almost the entire eastern boundary. The Orton-Asby limestone has extensive pavement with the usual flora, with the notable additions of Green Spleenwort, Lesser Meadow-rue and the rare Baneberry. A wetland area, rare on limestone, occurs round Sunbiggin Tarn. There are some rare sedges and orchids and one of the best displays of Bird's-eye Primrose in Britain (this plants distribution being almost entirely in the Pennines of Cumbria and Lancashire).

The upland areas of the Pennines bordering the east of the county have the limestone overlaid with acidic blanket bog and the main botanical interest occurs only in places where the limestone is exposed. In the Cross Fell area north of Stainmore there are typical mountain species, such as Starry Saxifrage and an unusual mountain For-get-me-not. The Cumbrian side of the Pennines is less well endowed than the infamous Upper Teesdale region, but Spring Gentian is locally frequent between Mickle fell and Alston and the Teesdale Violet just hangs on at Long Fell. The Pennine foothills have herb-rich pastures and haymeadows, but many have been lost to improvement.

The north-east corner of the county around Bewcastle Fell is extensively planted with conifer or is blanket bog. Only where the limestone is exposed by weathering by the River Irving, for example around Gilsland, does the selection of plants become more interesting.

6. SILURIAN SLATES

BluebellsThe southern foothills to the Lake District are made up of a band of acidic slates that stretch from the Duddon to the Howgill Fells. These are less interesting botanically, comprising lowland Oakwood, with both Pendunculate and Sessile Oak, and much planted forest. Bluebells can be spectacular in spring, especially in recently cleared areas, together with other plants typical of broad-leaved woodland like Wood Anemone, Wood-sorrel and Common Dog-violet. A more enlightened policy on the part of the Forestry Commission is now seeing the replacement of conifers by a better mix of species. The wetter woods between Coniston Water and Lake Windermere have Touch-me-not, or Yellow Balsam, which is another Lake District speciality. Its name derives from its exploding seed-pod, which requires a gentle touch to set it off.

Around Sedburgh/Tebay the roadsides of the Lune valley support many colonies of the umbelliferae Spignel (which used to be known as Bald Money or 'The Westmorland Herb' and sold in London markets). This local plant otherwise occurs in Scotland and at a few sites in Wales. Further south, the River Lune has weathered the slate and the banks of the river hold an unusual dwarf form of Golden Rod which flowers early and Dog Violet (as opposed to Common Dog Violet), which is normally a scarce plant of coastal regions.

7. SKIDDAW SLATES

The acidic hills of the Lake District north of Keswick are generally poor for plant species, although less intensive sheep grazing means that the heather cover is more extensive than elsewhere. The main plants of interest occur in the bogs and flushes, including the scarce Bog orchid and Great Sundew, while Hobcarton Crag surprisingly holds the Lakes most celebrated plant, Alpine Catchfly, which literally hangs on to one of only two sites in the British Isles.

8. IGNEOUS ROCKS

The Borrowdale Volcanic rocks of the central Lakes have been heavily grazed for centuries and are mostly acidic in character. Where outcrops of calcareous rocks occur some notable species are found. The Helvellyn/Fairfield cliffs are noted for their alpine flora, including Alpine Saxifrage at one of its two Cumbrian sites and Downy Willow at its only site in England and Wales. Elsewhere, Shrubby Cinquefoil is found on Wasdale Screes and Honister Crag has a variety of calcicole species.