I was on my way out to Dundreggan, and, as I sometimes do, I stopped at a special place beside the River Moriston, downstream of the dam, and about a mile before Dundreggan. The glen narrows at this point and the river passes through a series of cascades, with beautiful old Scots pines on the rocks on both sides. There’s also some very nice old oaks and aspens amongst the pines, and they are covered with mosses and ferns, because the topography and constant spray from the river create a temperate rainforest micro-climate there.
This mossy little enclave is very rich botanically, having lots of juniper and hazel in the forest understorey, and diverse plants, including wild strawberries and wood sage, as well as an abundance of wood ant nests. On this day it was the mosses on the oaks which caught my eye first of all though, perhaps because they are more visible now that the leaves are off the trees.
The lushness of the green trunks and branches is very appealing to me, reminding me of the mythical forests in Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings books by J R R Tolkien. When I’m out in places like this, I wouldn’t be surprised if an Ent appeared, lumbering gracefully through the forest! Many of the oaks had common polypody ferns (Polypodium vulgare) growing on their trunks or lower branches – like the mosses these are epiphytes, using the trees for support, but not taking any nourishment from them.
On a mossy rock, a speck of bright red caught my eye – it was a Cladonia lichen with red apothecia (the part that releases the spores from the fungal partner in the lichen’s symbiotic partnership).
I’ve photographed a few different Cladonia lichens recently, as the combination of pale green and bright red colours is very photogenic, but this seemed to be another species – Cladonia bellidiflora I think. The red of the apothecia is so intense that it appears to be shining through the rest of the lichen’s body, or thallus, in the close up photo above! In fact there were quite a number of clumps of this lichen around, and I spent a while photographing them.
Looked at in close up, each lichen podetia, or stalk, is an individual work of Nature’s art, a fantastic living sculptural form that is as unique as every snowflake. Each one evokes in me anew a sense of wonder for the boundless creativity and beauty of organic life on our planet. When I extrapolate that to how many tiny lichens like this there are in a small patch of Scottish forest, never mind in the whole world, it’s almost overwhelming.
While I was photographing the lichens I saw a fallen oak leaf with some common spangle galls on it. These are induced in the leaf by a tiny wasp (Neuroterus quercusbaccarum), and the larvae develop inside the galls on the forest floor over the winter. In the spring an all female or ‘agamic’ generation of the wasps hatch out, which are able to reproduce without mating. They lay their eggs on oak buds, causing currant galls to grow on the catkins, and male and female wasps hatch from those.
They mate, and the females lay their eggs on the undersides of the oak’s leaves, causing more spangle galls to develop, and so the life cycle of the wasps continues.
Nearby, another oak leaf had fallen amongst the leaves of wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), making a rather pleasing natural visual composition.
It was the mosses that continued to draw my attention though, as the tree trunks, rocks and forest floor itself were all carpeted with them. There was hardly any exposed surface visible on the rocks, and the bryophyte abundance brought a lushness and luxuriance to the landscape. Mosses are often thought of as all being green, and although they mostly are just green, they come in all sorts of different shades and variations of the colour, as this photo here of three different common species illustrates.
Nearby, there was a clump of reindeer lichen (Cladonia sp. – there are several different species that I haven’t learned to identify individually yet). Growing up through it was a solitary frond of glittering wood-moss (Hylcocomium splendens), that contrasted nicely in colour and form with the delicately-branched lichen, making a remarkable miniature world of beauty.
Just a few feet away there was some more reindeer lichen, again with glittering wood-moss beside it, but in this case also with a small mushroom – the horsehair parachute fungus (Marasmius androsaceus) – growing next to it. This fungus grows out of dead plant material, such as the needles of Scots pine or the leaves of broadleaved trees, but I didn’t disturb the natural tableau there to see what its substrate was in this instance.
On the standing dead trunk or snag of a Scots pine nearby, there was another example of one of my current favourite subjects – slime moulds. This one took the form of a cluster of brown blobs near the base of the snag, a couple of which had burst open, in preparation for releasing their spores. It was one of the two Lycogala slime mould species that occur in Scotland, and I’ll have to wait for an expert opinion to be certain of which one it is.
At the base of the dead pine there was a healthy growth of cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), and as I looked at it more closely I spotted several flowers on some of the shoots. Cowberry is known for flowering quite late in the year, but this was the 20th of November, which seemed later than usual to me.
Back on the pine snag, by looking carefully I spotted another couple of patches of slime mould, much smaller in size than the one I had already photographed. Again, I’ll have to call on expert advice to get these identified.
A rock nearby was unusual for this area in not being completely covered in moss. The exposed surface revealed a quartz vein, which is typical of many of the rock formations in Glen Moriston. A different species of Cladonia lichen (Cladonia squamosa) was growing beside the vein, and there were some moss clumps nearby, so it may only be a question of time before this boulder too is invisible under a bryophyte blanket.
Further on still, a moss-covered fallen trunk of one of the oak trees drew my attention, and when I had a close look at it I discovered a veritable wonderland of plants, mosses, lichens and fungi growing together there. Bright orange fungi caught my eye initially – these were brackets of the hairy curtain crust fungus (Stereum hirsutum), and they were fruiting in amongst some tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria), making another interesting and photogenic juxtaposition of forms.
In fact, the fungus was growing over quite a large part of the log, and in one area it was growing right beside another different species of Cladonia lichen – I’ll have to get some help with the identification of this one. This patch of the fungus clearly shows how it got the specific part of its scientific name, hirsutum, and its common name – from all the hair-like structures on its upper surface.
Just a few inches away, there was some more tree lungwort on the log. This lichen also grows in the Pacific Northwest of North America, where it is treated as an indicator species of temperate rainforests, and we can consider it similarly here perhaps as well. In this case it was growing intertwined with another typical inhabitant of very mossy, wet areas of woodland – the common polypody fern that I had seen earlier on one of the oak trunks.
A smaller fallen branch from the oak that was lying across the main trunk had another fungus growing on it – the wrinkled crust fungus (Phlebia radiata). The remarkable-looking fruiting bodies of this fungus are highly convoluted, or wrinkled, and resemble, depending on your preference, either the growth patterns of some corals in tropical reefs, or the surface of the human brain.
This is particularly true when the fungus is viewed very close up, and although the light was beginning to fade, I took the time to get a few photos with my high-magnification macro lens, even though I needed a long exposure of over 15 seconds for each of them. After I finished those, there wasn’t enough light left for any more photography, and I realised that during the course of the whole day I had never been more than about 50 yards from my car at any time! Such was the interest and beauty of nature in this special place by the River Moriston that it also compensated for the fact that I never even made it to my original destination for the day – Dundreggan!