Scottish Plants

Flowers and plants native to, or particularly associated with, the history of Scotland.

As with most countries, Scotland abounds with native plant and herb lore. For the modern gardener, looking with a fresh eye, many of the native species provide a rich source of inspiration for natural and historic planting schemes as well as modern design, or simply to blend with more conventional garden plants and preserve overlooked species. This is a ‘Cook’s Tour’ digest of the most notable in either appearance or properties, but for those who really want to dig in to the subject, there’s a short book list at the foot of the page.

We also have a separate list of modern and non-native plant suggestions for historical garden themes under Gardening Today.

comparison of Onopordum acanthium and Cirsium heterophyllum

Scotch Thistle, Onopordum acanthium (left) and Melancholy Thistle, Cirsium heterophyllum (right)

The Scotch Thistle (Onopordum acanthium).

Well, we had to start with this one! This tall and handsome thistle can grow up to five feet in height, and although regarded as a weed in the past, is now gaining favour with modern gardeners for its architectural value.

Its natural habitat is poorer soils, waste ground and roadsides, but despite its name, is actually quite rare in Scotland! Far more appropriate is the  Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum), which although also quite rare, is specific to damp places in mountain areas.  Similar in appearance to the common Meadow Thistle found in England, this however has large leaves which are felted and white underneath. The flower heads have elegantly overlapping purple-edged sepals, with reddish-purple florets – a far better match in appearance to the ‘Scottish Thistle’ than the namesake!

male and female Myrica gale flowers

Male Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale) catkins (left), and unripe female flowers (right)

Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale)

A small, unassuming shrub, growing to no more than four feet, this is common throughout Britain in fens and boggy areas. It has a pleasant, slightly honeyed aromatic scent, and its significance to Scotland is that it is a wonderful repellent to the dreaded midge, growing as it does in areas favoured by midges as breeding grounds. Its properties have been known for centuries, but it is only recently that companies have started to use bog myrtle extract in commercial midge repellents.

Ulex europaeus in flower

Hillside gorse (Ulex europaeus), and the flower in close up (right)

Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

Common Gorse, known as Whin or Furze in Scotland, is extremely widespread, particularly in sandy, coastal soils and thin, upland soils. It begins sporadic flowering in late Autumn, continuing through the Winter, and going into full flower in Spring. Its evergreen, thorny and tough nature makes it an excellent windbreak and hedging plant, with the bonus of a somewhat coconut-like scent when in full flower.

As with the pea and bean family, Gorse fixes nitrogen in the soil, creating an environment in which other plants can establish and thrive, although it can be aggressive in ideal conditions and need burning off or cutting down to control spread.

In Scotland, crofters and farmers traditionally used it as a Winter feed for cows, ponies and other livestock, grinding it to a palatable consistency with a whin-stone, either themselves or at the local mill. It can also be used as a fuel, burning well with little smoking even when quite green.

image of bell and ling heather

Bell Heather, Erica cinerea and Ling Heather, Calluna vulgaris (right)

Heather, Ling (Calluna vulgaris) and Heather, Bell (Erica cinerea)

Ling is the best-known native Scottish heather, providing that famous purple bloom on the hills. Evergreen, and tough as old boots, this will, however, turn up its toes in chalk/lime soil, and won’t really thrive in neutral soil unless planted with a good dose of ericaceous (acid) compost.

Being a plant adapted to harsh, damp conditions, a water-retentive soil works best, and a vigorous haircut in Spring to imitate the depredations of deer and so on, should have it coming back year after year.

The passion for alpine and rock gardens since the 19th Century has spurred many old cultivars, so you can now get white, pink and blue colours with a similar hardiness. Flowering period is generally July to September, but this varies according to both region and altitude.

Very similar to the calluna, the Bell heather has brighter purple/magenta blooms, and is more adapted to high and rocky places, so a thin, gritty soil with high drainage will make it happy. Again, flowering period varies according to situation, but on the whole it comes into bloom slightly earlier than the ling variety. In the wild, they often co-exist, with ling setting up camp in damp hollows of rocks, and the bell colonizing the drier areas.

Both these species have been developed to take advantage of their hardiness, and there are plenty of varieties that will bloom throughout the winter months.

Cross-Leaved Heath Erica tetralix

Cross-Leaved Heath (Erica tetralix) in bloom, and detail from a Dutch botanical plate of 1800, showing the distinctive crossed pattern of the scale leaves

Cross-Leaved Heath (Erica tetralix)

A relation of the heather, this is somewhat rare, but another that is fond of the wet, and produces its mid-pink blooms at the tips of the stems in peaty and boggy areas between June and October. Charles Darwin himself theorised that this species might be at least partly-carnivorous, due to it possessing glands that produce an adhesive substance, but it’s more likely these are just to help it hang on when the wind gets up a bit …

scottish bluebell, english bluebell and scottish bluebell matchbox

Scottish Bluebell or Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia (left), the famous Scottish Bluebell matchbox, and the English Bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta (right)

Scottish Bluebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Known south of the border as the Harebell, this differs markedly from the famous English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in that its growth is more bushy, with delicate, upright, branching stems and larger, bluish-purple bell-shaped blooms. Unlike its namesake, which colonises woodland and shaded areas, the Harebell is adapted to poor, moorland soil and dry upland areas. Unsurprisingly, it is hardy in low winter temperatures, and flowers continuously from late spring into autumn given temperatures above 12°C.

Having said all that, the English bluebell is very common in Scottish woodlands, so a good deal of confusion occurs over which is which. As is the case south of the border, this species is under threat from the introduction to gardens of the Spanish bluebell, which is more agressive in its reproduction. Steps have been taken to preserve what should really be termed the British bluebell, and it is now protected by law.

illusutrations of Scottish Flame Flower Tropaeolum speciosum

Scottish Flame Flower, Tropaeolum speciosum flower detail (left), in an apt setting, and berry detail (right)

Scottish Flame Flower (Tropaeolum speciosum)

Originally found in Chile and Peru, this striking climber is thought to have been brought to Scotland by a plant collector sometime in the 19th century, and has naturalised so sucessfully, particularly in old, abandoned gardens, the ‘Scottish’ is frequently added to the common name.

A member of the nasturtium family, it grows up to 3 metres tall, and produces masses of vibrant scarlet pansy-petalled blooms from July to September, followed by intense blue berries in the Autumn. Flowering most prolifically in cooler summers, it needs a shaded, moist and peaty root run, and once established, is extremely hardy. As with most nasturtiums, the flowers are edible, and can be added to fruit or green salads for a dash of artistry.

Interestingly, it also thrives well in New Zealand, where it has become so rampant it is now classed as a weed!


A particularly useful link is the Natural History Museum’s postcode plant finder; simply pop in the first part of your postcode, and the search facility will list both modern and historically recorded wild plants for your area. Great for identifying ‘weeds’ that might be worth a stay of execution.
Postcode Plant Finder


Flora Celtica by Wm. Milliken & S. Bridgewater
ISBN 1841583030
Published 2004 by Birlinn
A rich digest of Scotland’s plant heritage, it’s people and lore, lavishly illustrated throughout. One to dip in to on dark Winter nights in anticipation of Spring.

Garden Plants for Scotland by Cox and Curtis-Machin
ISBN 9780711226753
Published 2008 Frances Lincoln
Classic garden plants and native species proven to perform well in the Scottish climate. Exhaustive tips and information from gardeners past and present, along with a splendid array of over 800 photographs.

Scots Herbal by Tess Darwin
ISBN 1841587117
Published 2008 Birlinn
A thoroughly-researched and absorbing illustration of the Scots’ attitude that no plant is ‘just a weed’.

Scottish Wild Plants: Their History, Ecology and Conservation. Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden, edited by Lusby and Wright
ISBN 9781841830117
Published 2001 Mercat Press
Beautifully illustrated with photographs of the plants under discussion in their native habitats, this is an essential guide for those with an interest in conserving Scotland’s plant diversity, or simply as a reference to enhance one’s own garden.

Twenty Common Scottish Trees. Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden, Ian Darwin Edwards
ISBN 91872291716, 9781872291710
Published 1996 EBS
Authorititive digest for those considering plantings for the garden or native Scottish ecology.

Archives and Monographs

Plant Life in Ayrshire by Dr Ralph Kirkwood, Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Monograph No.9



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