IT is Scotland’s much lesser known thistle and one of the rarest and most endangered plants in the UK.

A rare relic of the last Ice Age, the alpine blue sow thistle grows only on remote Scottish mountains.

However, conservationists are now working to ensure its survival in Scotland by establishing a new population of the species.

The elusive flower has been planted along a small gorge in the centre of the village of Braemar, Royal Deeside, where it is hoped it will thrive.

The joint project between Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) also includes new signage to bring the story of the rare plant alive for visitors and locals.

SNH Operations Officer Mike Smedley said: “The planting site by the Water of Clunie is one of several chosen to see whether it is possible to establish this species at relatively low altitude.

“If successful, flowers could be visible from the bridge as early as next year and at such a popular tourist spot in the heart of Braemar, this is a great opportunity to showcase nature conservation in action to thousands of people each year.”

Botanists say the alpine blue sow thistle (Cicerbita alpina) is an extremely rare plant in the UK, with only four populations known to survive naturally in the wild, on ledges and in gullies in the eastern Cairngorms.

It is thought grazing has led to the plant’s decline in Scotland.

The species is identified in the Scottish Government’s Biodiversity Route Map to 2020 as a target for conservation action.

The RBGE and SNH have been working on a long-running project to better understand the plant’s genetics and to establish new populations, including at relatively low altitudes.

Scottish Rare Plants Conservation Horticulturist at the RBGE Martine Borge said: “The future of this delicate and luminous plant is very uncertain. Like many of Scotland’s rare plants it needs a lot of support from horticulturists, scientists and members of the public to ensure it can recover from such a vulnerable position and help safeguard Scotland’s biodiversity.”

Research shows that genetic variation within the four existing sites is “low” and the plants are becoming “increasingly inbred”.

Using seed and root stock collected from the wild, RBGE has cultivated plants from different origins at its gardens in Edinburgh.

Plants from two different genetic sources have been used in Braemar in the hope that they will be able to cross-breed at the new location and become genetically more variable.

Biodiversity Scientist at the RBGE, Dr Aline Finger said: “Our aim is to create healthy, self-sustaining populations for the future.

“We hope that by maximising genetic diversity, this and other planted populations have the genetic basis to be able to cope with current and future environmental challenges. We also want to bring this striking plant closer to the people of Braemar and anyone visiting the area.”