Journal du pays: Up close, cottongrass keeps its promises | Plants

OA light flickers on the horizon – a luminous mirage that attracts me. As I approach, the vision does not stop but intensifies as, up close, the cotton grass keeps its promise. Dozens of glowing seed heads sway with the breeze, illuminating the dark bog. Sometimes called ghost grass, it’s easy to get caught up in the wispy streaks that top the stems. Gauze plumes seem almost otherworldly. Yet its more common name bog cotton ground this plant in the wetland home of which it is an integral part.

Here in the blanket bog Flow Country in northern Scotland, it’s the common cottongrass I most often find near sphagnum beds and shiny bog pools, or the hare-tailed cottongrass which stretches across the peat moor.

Thriving in cool places with lots of rain, this blanket bog is extensive, though sadly damaged by drainage and past conifer planting. Ongoing restoration work has raised water levels in the drained bogs and vegetation is recovering, although there is still much work to be done. Cottongrass is one of the few plants adapted to the moist, acidic conditions of this habitat, and its white crests wave like flags planted in unstable ground.

Cotton grass in the blanket bog of Flow Country, Caithness and Sutherland. Photography: Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

While this bog covers the landscape like a blanket, cottongrass, with its light tufts whipped like cotton balls, seems to offer tiny pillows. Indeed, one of its ancient uses in parts of England was as stuffing for pillows in place of feathers. In the summer heat, the broad bog cover and soft-headed sedge create a soporific atmosphere. I find myself drifting into the grip of the white fluff, the little low billowing clouds.

It takes the bubbling song of a lark to wake me up. As the fluffy heads sway, caught in the breeze and the chirping of the birds, I reach out, bringing my fingers to the frothy peaks. After the large expanse of the surrounding mountains and the low expanse of the bog, it is refreshing to arrive at something small and immediately tangible. Soft as fleece, the sedge heads brush the skin – a feathery light at my fingertips.

About Charles Holmes

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