‘Oh, the gorgeous blossom days’

Hawthorden Castle Woods. Photo: The Bryce Collection
Hawthorden Castle Woods. Photo: The Bryce Collection

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

“Groups of kings in purple and gold

That guard the enchanted ground.”

Foxgloves, like hyacinths, look best in the mass, for though so handsome and stately in themselves as to attract attention, to see them at their best is to see a purple mass of them stretching beneath the trees, their beauty increased by their aggregation. Foxglove should be folk’s, i.e., “little folk’s” or Fairy’s Glove, and in many rural parts it is known as thimble flower, fairy’s cap, or fairy’s petticoat.

From the wrinkled foliage of April and May, the tall stem of the foxglove shoots up in June and more than half of its four foot length is covered with the large purple spotted crimson bells. Even more taking is this plant when the bells are snowy white, as they are to be found in Hawthornden Woods above the castle.

In each bell the stamens and the pistil are so carefully placed upon the upper wall that the big bumble bee cannot fail to transfer the pollen as it crawls in for its honey feast, but the smaller insects, which would not benefit the flower in any way, are kept from intruding by fringes of tiny hairs which stick in their faces.

It has been estimated that a single foxglove plant may produce as many as a million and a half seeds. It is ordinarily a biennial plant, i.e., it forms only foliage the first year and blossoms the second year, but very often if left undisturbed, it will continue to bloom for a third, fourth, or even a fifth season. It also flowers prolifically. When the flowers of the main stem are past, it throws out in a good season shorter lateral shoots which also flower and if by any mischance the main stem should be broken over early in the year, another stem to take its place is very quickly developed.

The modern pharmacist depends very largely on the leaves of the second year’s plants for several important preparations.

“They can so inform

The mind that is within us, so impress

With quietness and beauty and so feed

With lofty thoughts.”

Our next subject, if it does not impress with its beauty, as these lines suggest, is one that improves vastly with acquaintance in its proper domain and it has a picturesqueness of its own when we examine it more closely.

Plantain is to be found everywhere, by the footpaths in the glen, among grass of the woods, by the hedgerows, and where its presence is most unwelcome, in the turf of the garden. The Red Indians call it White Man’s Footsteps because it seems to have been unknown in Canada and other parts of America before our colonists began to settle there and now it has sprung up wherever the “palefaces” have gone.

This gives us an idea of how the seeds of these wild flowers are scattered. It is a matter of conjecture how it was carried across the Atlantic – on a spade, on the boots, on the clothing perhaps of a settler, perhaps among other seed.

A tradition says that plantain is the changed form of a maiden who pined away for a lover who never came, and dying, was changed into this simple flower that lingers by the footpath. To children it is known as “Kemps” or “Cocks,” both of which suggest a battle. Kemps is a corrupt form, possibly of the Anglo-Saxon “cempa,” a soldier and “cocks” takes our minds back to the days when cock fighting was to the common people what football is today – the pastime of all others.

One boy secures a strong growing plantain and thus equipped challenges another to battle. Each in turn holds up his stem for the other to slash at it with his, the one that longest survives the ordeal without breaking being the victor.

There are three common forms of plantain – Lamb’s Tongue is so named because of a resemblance in the leaf to a tongue of an animal. If the resemblance is only slight, it is all that is required as a rule in this kind of rural nomenclature. In this species the flower head is small and fairly globular in shape.

In the second species the flower head is elongated while the foliage leaves are also longer and narrower, lanceolate or lance-shaped. This is Narrow-leaved Plantain or Ribwort or Ribgrass. In Way-bread, the flower is still more elongated and will be more easily recognised by the more common name in these parts of Rat’s Tails, the favourites of canaries and other cage birds when the seeds are ripe.

In all three species the resemblance is very marked, the silvery appearance of the leaves from the fine silky hairs, the furrowed flower stalks, and the brown sepals which give the plant its rusty appearance. The flower is most distinct when the stamens display their bright yellow anthers and bright white filaments.

Sheep and cattle show a preference for plantain among the pasture grass but a crop of plantain would be anything but profitable to the farmer and there is as little likelihood of it ever being cultivated as there is of it being totally eradicated.

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