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Species - Cottongrass, common

Status

Classed by IUCN as a species of least concern.

Habitats

Where to see

Cottongrass, common (Eriophorum angustifolium)

An evergreen, perennial plant of the sedge (Cyperaceae) family although it superficially resembles a grass. Occurs in acidic wetlands and peat bogs all over northern parts of Eurasia and North America.  Seen throughout Wales, N Ireland and Scotland but less common in southern and central England perhaps because it prefers high heaths and bogs. In late summer the high moors of Northern England can turn white with cottongrass. Abundant in some boggy areas of west Wales, and in the Manchester area, where it is officially the county flower of the Greater Manchester Region. Used as a decorative plant in wildlife ponds, where it is most readily propagated vegetatively.

There is a long root-stock and an indefinite spread above water. The flowering stems grow to a height of about 20 to 70 cm. The sharp-pointed, long, narrow leaves (4 mm across) which surround each stem turn from green to red-brown in autumn adding to the bogs overall red hue.  Each stem has 3 to 5 cotton-like inflorescences hanging from the top, tassle-like, white and downy. They have bright yellow anthers. This plant may be confused with the other common cottongrass — hare’s-tail cottongrass (E vaginatum) — but E angustifolium has many flowering tufts whereas E. vaginatum only has one.
Flowers appear in April to May. They are wind pollinated, and followed by the fruits in June and July. It is the fruits that make common cottongrass so visible: they are small, dark brown and have white cotton-like hairs resembling cotton wool. The ‘hairs’ are actually modified petals and sepals adapted to make use of the wind for long distance dispersal of the attached seeds.

The fluffy heads were once used in the manufacture of candle wicks. They can still be used to stuff cushions, provided that there are sufficient. Cottongrass is a useful indicator to hikers of potentially dangerous deep peat bogs to be avoided
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