It’s not all Bilberry!

Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus is one of the commonest plants found across all the Quantock heathlands and down into the coombes in open oak woodland. Bilberry is a wiry low growing plant with small shiny leaves. It has inconspicuous, very small, greeny pink flowers which produce highly edible, but tiny, black fruits from June and onwards. Also known in the West Country by the name Whortelberry there is a long, but now defunct, tradition of gangs of children gathering Whortelberry fruits to sell to village shops around the Quantocks for jam-making.

But we also have a very rare look-alike plant lurking on our heathland. This is Cowberry Vaccinium vitis-idaeawhich also grows amongst the heathers but has a very limited distribution Quantock. 

Cowberry is a low growing, shorter than Bilberry, rather straggly evergreen plant and is very easy to overlook. It flowers mainly during May/June, but into September in 2023. It differs from our very common Bilberry by being evergreen and having very shiny red berries. It also has small white/pink flowers which make it easier to spot, if hunting for it during its flowering period. As far as we know it has only ever been found in Somerset in heathland above Staple Plain. 

This is a very rare plant in the South West and apart from Quantock is only found at couple of spots on Dartmoor. It doesn’t occur on Exmoor and the other nearest colonies of this plant are across the Bristol Channel on the Brecon Beacons. Why this plant has not been made a top priority for conservation action in Somerset is a mystery! Whilst doing research for the upcoming Friends of Quantocks “Nature Of Quantock” book I felt we should check if this scarce plant still occurred on Quantock and how much of it do we have. I tramped backwards and forwards across Staple Plain, several times, without success and so turned to the Somerset Rare Plant Group to see if they could help locate the Cowberry. I can now report that with SRPG help we have established that Cowberry still grows on Staple Plain and seems to have reasonably healthy, albeit small, population.

Nigel Phillips October 2023