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Photospot: moonwort

moonwort, Estonia, June 2015
Moonwort, Estonia, June 2015. Fronds rather like a key and leaflets the shape of a moon.

Moonwort Botrychium lunaria is one of those almost mythical plants, illustrated in guides but so rarely seen, with an intriguing name to add an air of mystery.

I always had an ambition to see it as, unusually, it's a fern yet it is illustrated in my favourite field guide, Fitter, Fitter and Blamey. There it is below the text, rather than on the plate, on pages showing daffodils and arums. It's alongside its nearest British relative, adderstongue fern, as these "two rather atypical ferns ... with their spadix-like spike of spores make them look not unlike diminutive arums."

The first I saw was on a small ledge on rocks beside the path leading out from Gavarnie in the French Pyrenees. This was 2003, it was Chris Gibson who spotted it, and I've searched the same spot many times since.

I think I was more surprised than anyone in the group when I re-found it ten years later, in exactly the same low, shady ledge, in June 2013 (right).

Had I been missing it before (and since)? That's very possible: though they can be between one and six inches high, 2-3 inches is typical.

But now I read (see right hand column) that it can appear in numbers in one year then be absent for for years.

It's rootstock contains mycorrhizal fungi. The moonwort gains nourishment from photosynthesis but also through symbiosis and/or feeding on the fungi itself. It's a partnership rather like an orchid and, like orchids, moonworts can be underground for years without producing a leaf until popping up when conditions are right.

My only other moonwort encounter was in coastal Estonia on a recce visit. Like orchids, moonwort favours nutrient poor habitats. This open, rather desolate coastal land had scores of them. They haven't been recorded on subsequent Estonia holidays. Overlooked or absent? A bit of each, probably, The moral seems to be: keep looking, but don't be surprised to fail to find them.

moonwort habitat, coastal Estonia
Moonworth habitat, Estonia.

More nature notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Estonia

Moonwort, coastal Estonia, June 2015.


This web page was inspired by reading Moonshine, myth and magic: the strange world of the Moonwort by Peter Marren, in British Wildlife, February 2019.


Web references

Moonwort on Wikipedia

Nine moonwort species in Greenland: see here. Photos in this online paper show the other species to have less moon-like leaves.

According to Peter Marren, a second species, Botrychium nordicum, has recently been discovered in the UK.


adderstongue fern, Dordogne

Moonwort's closest relative, adderstongue fern, Dordogne, May 2016.


two moonworts, Estonia

Two moonworts, Estonia.


Photos and words by Chris Durdin.

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