Natural History

Plant Life

Large flowered Hemp Nettle

Large flowered Hemp Nettle

It’s impossible to describe here the full extent of plant life in Helensburgh’s Green Belt. Here is what Dr. Keith Futter said at the end of a scientific report, more than a hundred pages long, following a habitat survey of our Green Belt for the Scottish Wildlife Trust in 1991:

“The wide diversity of species recorded in and around Helensburgh is testimony to the high wildlife value of the region… [the] area is so rich in plant life and consequently animal life.” We are grateful to him and another expert, Alison Rutherford, in assisting us with this summary.

Long lists of plants can be boring to the casual reader or visitor to our Green Belt. Here we want to emphasise two aspects – the amazing variety of plants on our doorstep and where you can find out more. This page concentrates on plant life – a separate page (Wildlife) deals with birds, animals and insects.

The amazing variety of plants on our doorstep

Keith Futter’s report listed hundreds of plants, some quite rare. Another study by Alison Rutherford, records about 800 species in our Green Belt, including ‘garden escapes’ and hybrids. Some are uncommon and even rare. A full listing of relevant information, including these two reports, and links are available at the end of this page.


Heath-Spotted Orchid

Heath-Spotted Orchid

Countryside flowers can blossom throughout the year. The old saying goes that when gorse is in bloom it’s the time for kissing — and you can find gorse in flower at all times, even in the winter! Of course heather is the other well-known local flower, while Bog-Myrtle crushed and put behind the ears keeps off the midges. In the spring, bluebells make carpets of colour, while the summer brings out traditional Scottish flowers such as the Harebell, Foxglove and Thistle.

Bell Heather

Bell Heather

But you have to look harder to find some flowers. Small and concealed are Marsh Violets, Common Dog Violets, Sundew, Eyebright and Cranberry. Some are hard to find because they are locally rare such as the Globe Flower, Bog Pimpernel, and Birdsfoot, but they are there. The Whorled Caraway is common in the greenbelt, but uncommon nationally.

Orchids of different sorts surround us, some common like the Heath Spotted Orchid and some rarer such as Lesser Twayblade. What wonderful names some of our local flowers have like Enchanter’s Nightshade, Dog’s Mercury, Ragged Robin, Wood Stitchwort and Bittersweet. The richness of our floral heritage is astonishing.

Beech Fern

Beech Fern


The range of ferns, with their delicate lace patterns, could be a study in itself: Oak Fern, Beech Fern, Lady Fern, Hard Shield Fern, Lemon-scented Fern, Western Polypody and many others.

Some are quite uncommon such as Soft Shield Fern, Hay Scented Buckler Fern and Narrow Buckler Fern.


The different soils and habitats of the area produce different kinds of wild grasses. On peat and acid soils Purple Moor-grass, Mat Grass, Heath Grass and Wavy Hair-grass occur. On more neutral soils Yorkshire Fog, Cocksfoot, Red Fescue, Common Bent, Crested Dogstail and Meadow-grasses are common. At wetter sites Creeping Bent, Tufted Hair-grass and Marsh Foxtail may occur and in woodlands, Creeping Soft-grass and the locally uncommon Wood Melick grass.

Lichens and Mosses

Lichen is a sign of clean, healthy air unpolluted by industry and lichen is found extensively around Helensburgh. Many moss types also flourish, including nine different varieties of Sphagnum Moss.




Anyone who has got fingers and lips purple from guzzling blaeberries (blueberries) on our hills or brambles (blackberries) in our hedgerows will know that the autumn countryside can be delicious. But you should be careful. Some berries are poisonous and berries grown where there are extensive car exhaust fumes (eg beside main roads) should be avoided. On paths used by dogs it is wise to pick berries only above the height of most dogs – for obvious reasons!




An Italian visitor to Helensburgh looked around him and exclaimed ‘But why aren’t people eating them?’ Well a few local people are but the reason most don’t is probably that they don’t know the difference between mushrooms and toadstools, between the edible and the poisonous. But no matter the edible delights the fungal displays are a feast for the eyes and, again, it is the sheer diversity of habitats in our local countryside which produces such variety


Duchess Wood trees

From Birch, Ash and Rowan clinging to the steep banks of local burns, to stately Scots Pines bending stiffly in the breeze, trees are one of the glories of our Green Belt and the home to many creatures. Tidy-minded people sometimes think that woodland management means removing fallen branches and dead trees, but the rotting timber provides for millions of insects which, in turn, are food for birds. When you walk up Tom na h-Airidh behind Helensburgh and Rhu you see the trees up-ended by the storm of 1969, roots in the air, looking like a dinosaurs’ graveyard, remember that these old trees are succour for the cycle of life.

Trees on Blackhill Mire

Trees on Blackhill Mire

Oak varieties (e.g. Sessile Oak and Pedunculate Oak) have a long history in Scotland and some are the local remains of ancient forests. Hazel, Willow, Beech, Larch, Hawthorn and Elder abound, while commercial forestry has introduced foreign varieties such as Sitka Spruce. It is said that Sycamore trees were introduced by the Romans. They certainly flourish here — perhaps too well because their helicopter seeds get everywhere and their spreading canopy can crowd out the light from other trees. That is why management of the Duchess Wood has concentrated on cutting back the Sycamores. Much the same can be said about rhododendrons which have flourished widely throughout Scotland, including our Green Belt. The wild purple variety are complemented throughout town gardens by the wide variety and colours of cultivated varieties. The magnificent gardens at Glenarn in Rhu with their display of rhododendrons (and other trees and shrubs) lie on the edge of our Green Belt.

Woodlands are a key feature of our countryside and the Green Belt Group will continue to lobby for protection of woods and the creation of a ‘necklace’ of community woodlands, linked by a public footpath network, as a feature of our Green Belt.

Where you can find out more…

Here are some sources, other than the internet, for further information about plant life in the countryside around Helensburgh.

Keith Futter (1991) ‘A Habitat Survey of Helensburgh and Ardmore Point‘. Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Rutherford, A (1991) ‘The Flowering Plants and Ferns within the burgh boundary of Helensburgh‘.

Dumbarton District Council (1990) ‘Helensburgh’s Fringe : A Study of Opportunities‘ Planning Department.

Mill, R. (1967) ‘Flora of Helensburgh’.

Photos by Keith Futter.