‘Oh, the gorgeous blossom days’

A time for haymaking. Photo: The Bryce Collection
A time for haymaking. Photo: The Bryce Collection

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

“Children of the flaring hours,
Buttercups that will be seen
Whether we will or no.”

The buttercups, like the daisies and the poor, we seem to have always with us as they enjoy a long reign during the summer months, appearing as early as April or May and flowering on till October.

It is in June, however, that they are to be found at their best; it is then, as Lowell puts it, that “the buttercup catches the sun in its chalice.”

There are three common species to be found in the woods, meadows and even hedgerows. The bulbous buttercup or crowfoot is the most showy of all and may be readily distinguished by its turned down sepals. It is found in bloom earlier than the others by reason of its swollen root stocks, which, of course, means a stored up food supply.

This root stock is known in some parts as St Anthony’s turnip, but as it is bitter and poisonous we hope he was not called upon to eat it. The name crowfoot is given because of the supposed resemblance of the foliage to the foot of a bird but other local names “frog’s foot” and “gold cup” are equally applicable.

The creeping buttercup is also fairly common by the side of the footpaths and takes its name on account of the long creeping stems it sends out from near the base of the main stem.

By means of these, it propagates itself as the runners develop the plants of the succeeding season by taking root wherever a node touches the ground.

The meadow buttercup, also to be found in open places of the wood, is taller than either of these, and is readily distinguished by its lightness and delicacy compared with its neighbours. As the name implies, its natural habitat is the meadows where it attains a height of two or three feet. Its appearance is anything but welcome by the farmer, however bright it may make his field, as cattle will avoid it on account of its acridity, or eat it at the expense of blistered mouths.

When dried it loses its pungency but it is hard and is not nourishing. All the stems are covered with tiny hairs to prevent insects such as ants from creeping up to the blossom and stealing the honey.

Gay calls it the “butter-flower” in his description of the funeral of a young maid.

“Upon her grave the rosemary they threw,

The daisy, butter flower, and endive blue.”

The botanical name of the family “ranunculus,” is supposed to be derived from the Latin “rana,” a frog, and this association of ideas may come from the plant’s preference for low-lying damp grounds, the natural haunt of the amphibians.

“Go abroad

Upon the paths of nature and when all

Its voices whisper and its silent things

Are breathing the deep beauty of the world.”

Another common little wood flower at this season is the Yellow Bedstraw or Lady’s Bedstraw, in honour of the Virgin Mary.

Its stems attain a length of from six inches to a foot according to its situation and may be found healthy and erect or lying along the ground as if enfeebled by the weight of blossom.

The leaves are arranged on the stem in whorls and are of a dark green shade, bright and glossy and spread out sharply, in numbers varying from six to eight in the whorl.

The flowers, though very small, are so numerous in the aggregate that the plants are bright and showy. Their odour is somewhat peculiar, to some people pleasant, to others probably the majority, somewhat nauseating.

The name “bed-straw” is really “bed-strew” and is named after the Virgin because it is said to have been one of the plants used to form a soft bed in the manger at Bethlehem.

The juice of bedstraw used to be commonly utilised to curdle milk as we now use rennet, and from this practice the family takes the name of Gallium from the Greek “gala” milk.

It was also used in early times as a dye in many parts of Scotland and it is said to have the somewhat curious power of colouring the bones of animals which feed upon it.

An old botany writer says of it, “An ingenious gentleman, conversant in dyeing, assured me that it was a plant highly deserving of culture as an article in that business: for that the roots, though not so large as those of madder, produced a brighter colour.”

The flowers, infused like tea and then cooled, is said to have been used as a cooling beverage on summer. If boiled in olive oil it is claimed for them that they are an excellent remedy for burns and scalds and equally good for bathing hot of tired feet and removing stiffness from tired muscles.

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