Our home correspondent Kate Hannett tags along with James Donaldson, our in-house forager, in his foraging “off-season”, when juniper conservation and general sustainability take centre stage.
KH: Winter is a time for The Botanist’s professional forager James to take stock and plan for the year ahead. Top of his list is Islay Juniper conservation. On a misty day, early in the year, James is keen to go looking at some of the juniper (Juniperus communis) plants in the South of Islay. The aim: check the already known juniper populations and check for more in surrounding areas. James is hoping to take some cuttings to grow for reintroduction around specific parts of the island, continuing the conservation work that the botanical scientists Richard and Mavis Gulliver had done previously.
On the journey James talks about some of the wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) he utilises on the island; did I know of any bigger patches that may be around? ‘A couple but they are low lying grassy patches, is that ok?’ ‘No.’ The ideal plants are usually found on rocky outcrops, creating an untethered carpet of thyme. Therefore, he is able to cut enough from a plant to make it worthwhile but with least disturbance to the plant. The tiny size of wild thyme stems (with leaves 4-8 mm and flowers 6-9mm) picking just a tiny stem here and there, in-between the grass it would be a massively inefficient task. An insight into the professional forager’s universe…
Stopping near Laphroaig to check, traversing some woodland to the shore and after a little bit of sprackling about, some healthy new thyme spots are found by the shore. James can hopefully use these for picking later in the season. Another bonus of the seashore jaunt is finding a fish box in near perfect condition. To some, it is just more jetsam washed upon the shore. But fish boxes are the unspoken staple of the west coast gardening scene! Lining front gardens and walkways by seaside houses, they are ideal as planters. This one will eventually house the new juniper cuttings back at the distillery.
Further south, onto estate land (with permission), we edge along the shoreline towards ‘juniper alley’, fallow deer silently hop the drystone walls and run across the salty merse, into the woods. These parts of the island are rarely trodden on. Because of over-grazing, Islay juniper in the wild has been pushed onto the very fringes of the land – cliff edges, wall tops – wherever it is out of reach of nibbling sheep, deer and rabbits.
Around the corner, the prize of navigating these awkward, edge, terrains is that juniper is beyond expectation in size and number. Some areas reaching metres across. Carefully monitored by the Gullivers and now James, plants that James already knows are checked and the search continues further along the coast for new plants. There are several viable patches and walking back, he starts to take cuttings from a number of plants.
Taking cuttings is the most reliable method of propagation for juniper but it is a long process and it may be up to three years before they will be planted out in the Islay wilds.
These cuttings are taken from a mixture of male and female plants. Juniper is dioecious, meaning sexes are on different individual plants, not together. Thus cuttings must be taken from both male and female plants to increase the chance of future seed fertilisation. To distinguish between the two: female plants have small ‘berries’, however, juniper berries are not in fact berries but fleshy cones. Male cones are much smaller in comparison.
For the journey back to the distillery, cuttings are boxed carefully in a damp cloth, we try to catch Neil the estate gardener to thank him for the access down to the shore. But the workshop is empty, there are just happy chickens on the manure heap and a couple of dusty pigs snuffling and grunting for a scratch between the ears as we left.