Four Seasons / Four Seasons – Summer 2014

The most obvious choice? Edmonston' chickweed.

In the April newsletter of the Shetland Horticultural Society, its secretary Kathy Greaves raised an interesting question: “Should Shetland have a national flower?”

Most countries have a national flower, usually an iconic native or a plant that has played an important cultural, religious or economic role for hundreds, in some instances thousands, of years.


A national flower sends out a signal to the world, is part of a nation’s identity and often deeply connected to the collective memory and psyche of a people.

Holland’s national flower could be no other than the tulip. It’s not native, but has shaped that nation’s fortunes since the 17th century, and still forms a vital part of the Dutch economy – songs have even been written about it.

Ragged robin - all photos: Rosa Steppanova, Lea Garden

In many countries the national flower is a wild plant unmistakeably identifiable with the country in question: Bhutan has the blue poppy, Austria the edelweiss, and Scotland the thistle.

Some countries, such as Wales and Japan, have two, leek/daffodil and cherry blossom/chrysanthemum, respectively, while the rose and the tulip are shared by several nations.


Shetland is neither a country nor a nation, but why should that stop Shetlanders from adopting an emblematic flower? And what should it be?

A national flower for Shetland?

Heath-spotted orchid

The islands’ favourite and most iconic garden plant?

Our native flora is a rich and varied one and amongst the best-known and most conspicuous wild flowers are primrose, roseroot, sea pink, yellow flag, bird’s foot trefoil, wild thyme, goldenrod, marsh and heath-spotted orchid, moss, sea and red campion, meadow sweet, spring squill, ragged robin, lady’s smock, buttercup and cotton grass. We have native dog rose, wild honeysuckle, and ling that turns much of the islands purple as autumn approaches


The most obvious choice for an emblem is of course an endemic plant, and Shetland is in a fortunate position here. ‘Edmonston’s chickweed’, or Shetland Mouse-ear, is found on and near the Keen of Hamar in Unst, and nowhere else on this planet. Not only that, it also commemorates Shetland’s most famous botanist. A ready-made national flower, if ever there was one.


But what about Shetland’s best-loved or most iconic garden plant? In spring, there’s no getting away from daffodil yellow, purple drumstick primulas dominate many a border, willow catkins are laden with pollen, and tulips flash pink and scarlet.

The pageant of summer brings columbines, lady’s mantle, clove-scented pinks, lupines, campanulas, butterballs, bachelor’s buttons, Shasta daisies, Oriental poppies, candelabra primulas, blue bonnet geranium, potentillas, polemoniums, peony roses,” Peruvian” lilies and red hot pokers. And where would Shetland’s gardens be without shelter from the ubiquitous fuchsia, Japanese briar, flowering currant, escallonia and New Zealand daisy bushes?

Oriental poppy

All these and many others are contenders. The choice is vast, but which is the most-loved, the one everybody recognises and knows the name of, the one most symbolic of Shetland’s gardens?

Some horticultural soothmoothers have even made their home alongside Shetland natives. Yellow mimulus, far from its native North America, lines streams and ditches, and rubs shoulders with the “Australian daisy”, which hails from South America, while South-African montbretia can be found gracing banks and cliffs.

An emblematic plant doesn’t necessarily have to be ornamental. Bere barley ensured the survival of the islanders for centuries. Shetland kale, a distinct form of cabbage, unique to the islands, did the same. And what about the stately rhubarb, to be found around each and every croft?


So what is it to be, a national flower that represents all of Shetland and its unique landscape and culture, or an iconic garden plant? Why not both? I have no doubt that the society’s committee will come up with a solution.

Whatever the outcome, SHS giving Shetland the opportunity to nominate its most iconic plant is a splendid idea, and the hunt for it is bound to be an interesting and exhilarating one.

 Rosa Steppanova