Bog Plant of the Month – Bog Cotton

Georgia O’Keefe’s large-scale paintings of flowers explored the beauty of plants close-up, and she described how little we tend to notice the plants that surround us:

“Nobody sees a flower really, it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time. When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else”.

The White Flower

The White Flower, 1932 by Georgia O’Keeffe ©

One of the reasons I love macro photography is the opportunity it gives to get down to the level of plants, to learn how they function and to really see them, which, as O’Keefe observes, takes time. Photographing wildlife, whether flowers or animals, enables you to slow down and experience nature in a different way. I often bend down to photograph a plant only for some insect to fly, swim or amble across my viewfinder, to become the new focus of my photographic efforts. Richard Mabey described how for many of us, nature is little more than a “generalised green blur”. Bogs could be similarly described as little more than a generalised brown blur until you get down on your knees or get up close to investigate.

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser, Girley Bog

My bog plant of the month for June is the ubiquitous Bog cotton or Cottongrass as it is commonly known, a perennial herbaceous plant in the family Cyperaceae, (Sedge family), which outwardly resembles grasses or rushes. Differentiating these three plants (known as the Graminoids, or grass-like plants to you and me) can be challenging but a useful botanical rhyme summarises the main differences as follows:

“Sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses have nodes where leaves are found”.

Hare's Tail Cottongrass

A cheerful hummock of Hare’s Tail Cottongrass

As always there are exceptions to this rule, but for Bog Cotton, the idiom holds true. A cross-section of the stem reveals 3 edges, although it can look round to the naked eye and a hand lens is useful to reveal the subtleties of this plant. Bog cotton is a plant that is uniquely symbolic of the Irish landscape, yet one that is rarely appreciated up close. Its beauty is most often seen in meadows of white, fluffy cotton heads swaying in the breeze, often on cutover bog.

Bog Cotton

A meadow of Bog Cotton on the cutover bog

Cottongrass is one of the first plants to flower on Irish bogs, and the photo below dates back to 28th February 2014. The seed heads are seen later in the year, a fluffy mass of white cotton which helps the plant in the dispersal of its seeds by wind.

Hare's Tail Cottongrass in flower in February

Hare’s Tail Cottongrass in flower in February

There are two varieties of Cottongrass found on Girley Bog: Eriophorum vaginatum or Hare’s Tail Cottongrass, and Eriophorum angustifolium, or Common Cottongrass. The latter is distinguished by having several seed-heads while the former has just one seed-head.


Eriophorum angustifolium (Common Cottongrass)

As with Sphagnum moss and other bog plants, Cottongrass has developed unique adaptations to surviving in the challenging growing conditions of a bog, a water-logged and nutrient-poor environment. E. angustifolium has air canals in its roots and stems, which allow oxygen to be transported deep down to the roots of the plant. These can be buried up to 60 cm in wet bog pools.

E. vaginatum grows on the drier parts of the bog, and forms hummocks or clumps which creates a less waterlogged environment for its growth. Its leaves are long and slender, which helps it conserve water during the summer months, when the bog dries out and it may be vulnerable to dessication.

Eriophorum vaginatum or Hare’s Tail Cottongrass

Eriophorum vaginatum (Hare’s Tail Cottongrass)

Another adaptation of these plants relates to the recycling of nutrients in their roots during the winter months. The long narrow leaves turn from green to red-brown, as the nutrients are drawn down into the underground storage organs, to be recycled for growth the following Spring.

Bog Cotton recycling nutrients

Slender leaves of Common Cottongrass turning red

Bog plants have inspired many artists and writers and Michael Longley’s poem, (following Heaney’s use of bogs as symbols of the Irish psyche) suggests bog cotton as a symbol that promises reconciliation and religious healing in Northern Ireland. His description of bog cotton as a “stauncher of wounds” suggests that the bog landscape might yet yield a life-affirming alternative to the association of bogs with burial of victims during the North’s conflict*.

“It hangs on by a thread, denser than thistledown,
Reluctant to fly, a weather vane that traces
The flow of cloud shadow over monotonous bog –
And useless too, though it might well bring to mind
The plumpness of pillows, the staunching of wounds”

However, his description of the bog as monotonous is questionable in my opinion. Slow down and inspect this boggy world up close, as O’Keefe did with her flowers, and it is anything but monotonous. By taking the time to observe this wonderful plant up close, we can appreciate even more its presence en masse, as it graces our landscape with white vistas of fluffiness every year about this time.

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Fluffy Hare’s Tails


Richard Mabey on the art of giving species their common names

An Irish Flora by D. A. Webb.

“Bog Cotton” in Collected Poems, Michael Longley, London Jonathan Cape, 2006.

*Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition By Donna L. Pott.

4 thoughts on “Bog Plant of the Month – Bog Cotton

  1. I remember as a child out in the bog pulling the bog cotton in the west of Ireland. We used to collect it to put on our altars at home!

  2. Loving your photos! These beautiful cottonballs remind me of a traditional jig called “na ceannabhain bana” – when my teacher taught it to me, he said it was named after the little white flowers which grow on the bog.

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