‘Oh, the gorgeous blossom days’

The old bridge near Hawthornden. Photo: The Bryce Collection
The old bridge near Hawthornden. Photo: The Bryce Collection

Winnie Stevenson (Roslin Heritage Society) continues her series of articles exploring Roslin Glen’s flora and fauna 100 years ago.

“To see the rose and Woodbine twine.”

Woodbine or honeysuckle plants are to be found at odd intervals all up and down the Glen, but for no apparent reason many of them do not flower.

It is not as if they were annuals, for the honeysuckle lives from year to year and is not forced to start afresh each season.

Yet only a few of the plants are in flower so far, while across the water in the Hawthornden grounds, similar plants, no more healthy looking than the others, are flowering profusely.

The honeysuckle is a climbing plant and twines itself round anything near which may be strong enough to hold up its weak stem to the air and light.

Though not a parasite, it does its host considerable harm for so tightly does it cling that it has been known to furrow deeply into young trees. It is from its twining habit that it takes the name “Woodbine,” more frequently to be found in poetry.

As early as the time of Chaucer’s writings we read of the fresh woodbine worn by lovers who have never been untrue in thought, word, or deed, but always steadfast.

In Tennyson’s song, “Come into the Garden, Maud,” we have it that “the woodbine spices are wafted abroad.” Gray recalls the “balmy essence of this flower, that fondly twists about the dark green fir,” while to Keats it is “the woodbine, of velvet leaves and bugle bloom divine,” and again “the woodbine, taking the soft winds upon their summer thrones.” Spenser and Shakespeare name it the “caprifole,” a name now gone out of use.

But if woodbine is an appropriate name, equally so is honeysuckle and Keats writes of it as “full of clear bee-wine.” Nevertheless the honey is not destined for the bees, for it is evident from the shape of the flowers that moths and not bees are the welcome visitors. The honey is beyond the reach of other insects.

It is the Hawk-moth with its long pointed wings and its darting tongue which takes most of the nectar of the honeysuckle.

It is to attract the moths that the flowers are specially designed. Like white campion and the other night blooming plants, honeysuckle is of that light shade which is most visible at twilight and just as moths will hover round a lamp or candle, so are they readily attracted in the open by anything bright.

A naturalist tells how he captured a hawk-moth on a honeysuckle plant and carried it away a distance of several hundred yards but immediately on its release it flew straight back to the same plant. The flowers are to be seen at their best between seven and eight in the evening when they open fully. As may be expected, we find the scent of the honeysuckle stronger then than in the daytime, attracting in this way moths from a distance.

Various stages in the development of the flower may be noticed. The buds stand erect before opening but as the flower expands, it gradually comes down to a horizontal position and after fertilisation is completed, it drops its head and insects recognise at once that such a flower is useless to them.

Nor only so, but as the process of fertilisation is proceeding, the colour of the flower undergoes distinct changes. When the flower is fresh and the stamens carry the pollen dust, the exterior is creamy white.

After the pollen has been removed by the moths, the flower takes on a deep yellow tinge, less conspicuous in the evening shade so that the fresher brighter flowers attract more strongly and the pollen is transferred from them to the older blooms.

With the transference of pollen a third change is evident, the colour once more changing and becoming a darker orange shade. The berries which come later in the year, being red and juicy, are eagerly seized by the birds.

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