April showers to May flowers

Rossyln Castle. Photo: The Bryce Collection
Rossyln Castle. Photo: The Bryce Collection

Winnie Stevenson (Roslin Heritage Society) continues her series of articles exploring Roslin Glen’s flora and fauna.

Go out!
Ye spirits of habitual unrest
And read it when the fever of the world
Hath made your hearts impatient, and, if life
Hath yet one spring unpoisoned, it will be
Like a beguiling music to its flow,
And you will no more wonder that I love
To hunt for violets in the April time.

The violet is another favourite of the poets and Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Scott, Thomson, Spencer, Chaucer, and Wordsworth have all eulogised the violet, its fragrance, its sweetness, its purity, its symbolism for truth.

Unfortunately, all violets are not scented and in the woods, the common or dog violet is more frequently met with. The name dog violet is used in reproach and scorn, a slur on the flower, and for what reason? Not that it is a sham in any way, or that it pretends to be what it is not, but simply because it lacks the quality of its more favoured relative.

The violet is supposed to be the food of cows and is supposed to account for the sweet breath of kine. The Greek name of the flower is Ion and this story accounts for its origin. A little peasant girl Io became a great pet of Jupiter, so much so that his wife Juno taunted him with being in love with the maiden. To appease the angry goddess, Jupiter transformed Io into a cow and caused the earth to bring forth violets that she might have dainty and delicate food.

Another Greek poem connects this flower Ion with the virgin maids of the Ionian Islands, who used to collect posies of violets as an offering to Jupiter. Still another story relates how Ianthe, a beautiful girl, was tormented by the unwelcome attentions of Apollo, and when she prayed to Diana to invoke her assistance, the goddess took away her beauty. This grieved Ianthe the more and when the girl was pining away, Diana in mercy changed her into a violet.

There are many points of interest in the different parts of the violet. It is very unusual to find the petals of a flower differing in size, but in the violet we have two equal pairs and one distinctly larger. This one should really be the top petal but as the flower stalk grows we see that it twists downwards so that the top of the flower becomes a kind of landing stage for insect visitors. This petal is also distinctly marked by yellow lines which are commonly known as “honey-guides,” and if they are not intended as sign posts to the bees, it is certain that they are only found on flowers which have honey stores.

Unfortunately, the sweet-scented violet does not seed nearly so freely as the dog violet does and hence the reason that the latter is more common. Both plants when the blossoms are shed develop large foliage leaves. These manufacture for the plant reserve food stores which are sent down to the underground stem to enable the flower to bloom early in the succeeding season.

The primrose, we might have noted, acts on the same principle.

Through primrose tufts in that green bower

The Periwinkle trailed in wreathes,

And ‘tis my faith that every flower

Enjoys the air it breathes.

At various parts of the Glen but especially in the vicinity of the Rosebank and Hawthornden Grounds, we come across great masses of glossy oval leaves on long trailing stems and here and there among these masses, bright bluish–purple flowers – salver shaped – held erect on shorter stems.

This is the periwinkle, one of the prettiest blues we have among our wild flowers. The five petals close into a long funnel shaped tube, and the tube is nearly closed so that only insects that have very large tongues can hope to reach the nectar of the periwinkle.

The name is said to be derived from the Latin “vincio,” I bind, and the idea is not inappropriate, for where the periwinkle once gets a hold upon a bank it soon establishes for itself a monopoly, as this plant rapidly increases in size and extent by rooting the tips of each stem as it reaches the ground.

It does not flower so freely in the woods as in gardens and consequently does not produce many seeds, but the seeds it does produce it gets dispersed in a rather unusual way. Its seeds very curiously resemble the pupae of ants and even the ants themselves are deceived as they carry them off to their hills.

In this way the seeds are ensured a ready and suitable place for germinating. The periwinkle retains its leaves during the winter, and thus is easily found at all seasons of the year.

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