During the summer months, Shetland's hills and coastlines come alive with dazzling displays of colourful plant life.

Shetland's northerly location means there are only about 400 plant species. But, in ravines, on ungrazed islets and, above all, in the 'hanging gardens' of the cliffs there are still vivid relics of the far more luxuriant vegetation that clothed the islands thousands of years ago.

Plants to spot on Shetland's beaches

You'll find plants adapted to extreme saltiness, dryness, high winds and lack of nutrients clinging to shifting sands and shingle banks on the lower shores. They include Sea Rocket, Silverweed, Sea Sandwort, Sea Mayweed, Goosegrass and the extremely rare Oysterplant.

A little further inland, on the sandy links above the beaches, there's a striking display of summer flowers, dominated by Tufted Vetch, Bird's-Foot Trefoil and Yarrow. Other flowers include Daisy, Buttercup, Silverweed, Selfheal, Eyebright, Field and Autumn Gentian.

Plants to spot on sea cliffs

Da Banks, or sea cliffs, have some of the lushest vegetation in the islands, and are known as 'Shetland's hanging gardens'. Along the closely-grazed turf of the clifftops, Sea Pink and the tiny blue flowers of Spring Squill are prominent from late May through to early July. On ungrazed sections they're joined by Sea Plantain, Buck's-Horn Plantain and, on the more sheltered cliffs, by Roseroot, Sea Campion, Red Campion, Scurvy Grass, Bird's-Foot Trefoil, Sheep's-Bit and Thyme. These species all flourish despite the poor soils, rapid drainage and exposure to violent winter winds and salt spray.

Roseroot copes by having very succulent leaves which allow it to conserve fresh water, in the same way as cacti plant. Spring Squill, Sea Pink and Sea Plantain do the same, while Scots Lovage, another plant frequent on inaccessible cliffs, adapts to the short growing season in Shetland by maximising growth early in the year.

Did you know...

All plants are protected by law in the UK, including more than 150 species with special protection. It is an offence to destroy or uproot any wild plant (unless this is accidental or permission has been given by the owner or occupier of the land) or to pick any of the specially protected plants, possess any part of them or advertise them for sale.

Wild flowers are best appreciated in the wild, where they belong and where others can come and enjoy their beauty. So take photos, please, not specimens.

Trees in Shetland

Shetland is often described as being "treeless" but that's not true. There are a few native tree species, such as the single Hazel at Catfirth in Nesting, the Rowans on loch islands in Northmavine and Shetland's last wild Crab-apples on a cliff face at Fora Ness in Delting.

The largest area of tree cover is in Weisdale, where a landowner established substantial plantations in the early 20th century. In the 1950s, these were supplemented by an experimental Forestry Commission plot which now boasts Sitka spruce trees more than 20m in height.

The reasons for the general lack of trees in Shetalnd are to do with clearance for firewood and the presence of sheep, which have prevented natural regeneration.

Plants to look out for on high land

On Shetland's highest summit, Ronas Hill (1,475' / 450m) conditions can be as extreme as at the top of Cairngorm. Vegetation is sparse and plants have adapted by growing low, creeping or forming hummocks on bare, exposed granite debris. About 15 Arctic-Alpine species grow on the hill, including Alpine Lady's Mantle and Moss Campion.

The eastern hills of Unst are not as high but, because of the peculiar geochemistry of the rocks on the Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve, a similar tundra-like habitat of stony soils has developed. Here grow the only examples in the world of Edmondston's (Shetland) Mouse-ear, a beautiful little chickweed named after Unst's famous 19th century teenage botanist, Thomas Edmondston.

Plants to spot inland

Inland, moorland and meadow offer a huge range of wild flowers, heathers and grasses. Drier meadows support many grasses including Sweet Vernal Grass – which, when dried, gives off its special smell. Amongst the grasses, Meadow Buttercup, Yellow Rattle, Devil's-Bit Scabious and Autumn Hawkbit dominate, accompanied by Red and White Clover, Common Mouse Ear and Eyebright, another semi-parasitic plant which takes advantage of the root systems of its host.

Sedges, Marsh Cinquefoil, Ragged-Robin and Lady's Smock favour wet meadows while tall herbs such as Meadowsweet and Angelica do better in areas where there's little or no grazing. Burns and ditches glow with Marsh Marigold, Monkey Flower and Yellow Flag.

And finally, if you're walking along a winding Shetland side road in early summer, look out for Primrose, Devil's-Bit Scabious, Autumn Hawkbit and Red Campion, along with grasses. Road verges in Shetland are a botanist's delight.