April showers to May flowers

Rosslyn Castle cottages. Picture: The Bryce Collection
Rosslyn Castle cottages. Picture: The Bryce Collection

As we cross under the Gardener’s Brae, the right-of-way footpath is difficult to make out on account of the big landslips of the past two years.

No doubt, by the end of the summer, a new path will be marked out for the tread of the many visitors. But, for the present, each one has to be a law unto himself or herself, and has to take what appears to be the cleanest and easiest route. Here we have going on year by year those erosive influences of the weather and the river, which working steadily through the many centuries, have given us the beautiful glen of which we are so proud.

Those best acquainted with the place must know a big difference in the general configuration of this part of the valley during the last decade or so. Both to this part and to the entrance to the wooded glen, at the confines of Rosebank Grounds, where the soil around the tree roots, has given way, something might be done by the Right-of Way-Society to improve the pathway.

“Where, thickly strewed in woodland bowers,

Anemones their stars unfold.”

In the thick green under the trees we may still happen upon a few belated specimens of the Wood Anemone – the “wooden enemy,” as a certain little girl is credited with writing it. This is a strange little flower in more than one way. In the first place, it has no petals, and though enlarged white sepals, daintily tinted with red on the under surface take the place of petals for the sake of attraction, the plant requires no insect visitors as it has the power of self pollination.

For this reason also it manufactures no honey store, having no desire to extend hospitality to undesired guests. “The coy anemone, that never uncloses her leaves until they are blown on by the wind,” is also known as “Wind Flower.” It has also been called “Wood Crowfoot,” denoting that it belongs to the buttercup family and despite the blushes in its cheek, described by one poet, it takes its full share in the bitterness and acidity of its relatives.

Nearly every member of the buttercup family is bitter and the juices of many of them are deadly poisonous. No grazing animals will eat buttercups.

A romantic legend which has come down to us from the Greeks relates how the anemone owes its origin to tears shed by Venus over the dead body of Adonis -

“Tears plenteous as his blood she pours amain,

But gentle flowers are born and bloom around,

From every drop that falls upon the ground;

Where streams his blood, there blushing springs arose,

And where a tear has dropped, a wind-flower blows.”

When the shadows of evening begin to fall, or when heavy clouds are drifting across the sky, threatening rain, the little sepals close over till their edges meet and form a fairy like tent to protect the generative organs of the plant from injury from cold and wet. The anemone is therefore a somewhat serviceable natural barometer.

To children the closing up of the tent is the work of the fairies who dwell within, and the same little supernatural agents are the artists who paint the faint blush which beautifies the flower. The anemone is to be found at its best in April.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Its loveliness increases. It will never

Pass into nothingness.”

Side by side with the anemone, we may look expectantly for the Wood Sorrel or Wood Oxalis. The unobservant may fail to distinguish it from the anemone, but for this there is little excuse, for though the dainty little white flowers have a certain resemblance, so have all little girls dressed in white, and the difference is quite as striking as the resemblance.

The heart shaped leaves of the oxalis have nothing in common with the much divided or lobed foliage of the buttercup family. The oxalis is a close relative of the shamrock. At one time it rejoiced in the name “Hallelujah” because it was one of the few wild flowers in bloom at Eastertide.

The story is told of St Patrick that, failing by words to demonstrate to the minds of rude Celts the great truth of “the Three in One, and One in Three,” he picked up the sorrel leaves at his feet to explain his teaching. Even today the trefoil design for windows is a feature of ecclesiastical architecture.

John Ruskin writes : “The triple leaf of the plant and white flower stained purple probably gave it strange typical interest among the Christian painters.” Sorrel is cognate with sour, and oxalis, which is Greek in origin, also means acid or sour and the names have sometimes been given by older botanists – “wood sour” or “sour trefoil.”

Distillation of the leaves gives us oxalic acid which is used by housewives to remove ink stains from linen. For certain cases of fever and for scurvy, a medicinal preparation is got which is acid and cooling and this is also made up with sugar into a syrup.

In Scotland the sorrel is widely associated with the cuckoo and it was a common belief not so long ago that the cuckoo ate the sorrel to clear its throat and hence the names “Gowke’s Meat” or “Cuckoo Sorrel.” [Gowk is of course Cuckoo as we find it in “hunt the gowke,” Gowkley Moss, Penicuik, and Cockpen.]

The sorrel is one of the plants that go to sleep at night in a very pretty fashion. Its foliage is responsive to all sorts of external conditions and for this reason it has been well named the British Sensitive Plant. If one blows on the foliage it responds at once by folding its leaves up closely, and towards evening, before the first dews begin to fall, not only does this change take place but it also droops its little head in pathetic fashion like a little wearied child.

The reason for this is supposed to be the distribution of moisture in the cellular tissue. The loss of light causes the leaves to collapse because the cells become less turgid and therefore the tissue less tense.

•This is the second in a series of articles, sourced by Winnie Stevenson (Roslin Heritage Society), which appeared in the Midlothian Journal in 1914.