‘Oh, the gorgeous blossom days’

The countryside near Hawthornden and Hewan. Photo: The Bryce Collection
The countryside near Hawthornden and Hewan. Photo: The Bryce Collection

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

“Those beautiful harbingers
Of sunny skies and cloudless climes, enjoy

Life’s newness and earth’s garniture spread out.”

The geranium family, though it embraces the fine showy plants of the garden and the greenhouse, has comparatively small blooms on the species that are to be found in a wild state. But they are all pretty flowers in symmetry of shape, in delicacy of colouring, and in the gracefulness of foliage.

Herb Robert is the best known of this family and it is abundant from end to end of the glen. After whom it is named is a matter for speculation. Some uphold the claims of the saint of that name, while others give the preference to Robert, Duke of Normandy, under whose patronage the old standard work, “Ortus Sanitatis,” was written. More likely than either of these is the derivation from the Anglo-Saxon “rob,” red, as the flower, as is also the case in Ragged Robin, is of a deep pink shade.

Crane’s Bill is another name commonly bestowed on wild geraniums in general because of the peculiar shape of their seed cases or fruits and it is interesting to note that geranium is derived from the Greek word “geranos,” meaning a crane. In this flower we may note again the distinct streaks on the petals – “honey guides,” pointing the way to the glands where the sweet nectar is stored. The peculiarly shaped seed vessels shaped like the beak of a bird are so contrived that when ripe the seeds are shot away to a considerable distance from the parent plant.

Herb Robert grows neither tall nor rank, but by spreading out its side shoots and usurping as much space as possible it is enabled thus to hold its own in the struggle for existence. It is generally an annual.

“Not a flower

But shows some touch, in freckle, streak, or strain

Of Nature’s purpose.”

Our next subject is one that is familiar to all children with an inherent love of mischief. Who among them does not know Cleavers, with its myriads of tiny hooks all up the stem which has only to be thrown at anyone to cause it to adhere firmly to his coat?

It is a plant of many names – cleavers, goosegrass, gripgrass, Robin-run-the-hedge, and an “alias” from every locality. The names, cleavers and gripgrass, designate its habit of growth, for by means of its hooks, it is enabled to seize on other plants and by their support climbs upward to air and light.

Geese show a distinct liking for it, as indeed do cattle and horses, hence the name goosegrass, though of course it is not a grass at all.

It belongs to the Galium family and, like Lady’s Mantle, it is said to have the property of colouring the bones of animals which feed upon it, while the juice of goosegrass used to be equally valuable as a substitute for rennet to curdle milk – Greek “gala” – milk.

Like the madders, too, goosegrass roots yield a good red dye. In olden days when tea and coffee were not such general commodities, the fruits of goosegrass, dried at the fire, made an excellent substitute for coffee, while a brew of the whole plant was considered equally as good as a cup of tea.

When we further take into account its medicinal properties as an ingredient in cooling spring drinks, as a remedy for poisons, for jaundice, as an external application for boils, etc., in place of a poultice, we can see that goosegrass would hold a high place in the regard of a bygone generation.

Its flowers are almost insignificant, being very small and of a nondescript greenish white tint. The petals do not form a tube, and hence the plant welcomes all kinds of tiny beetles and insects to distribute its pollen.

It resembles woodruff in foliage but its whorls of leaves are not so regularly disposed. Strictly speaking each whorl contains as a rule only two leaves and the rest of the whorl is said to consist of stipules which have taken the shape of true leaves and share equally in the work, but have neither buds nor branches springing from their axils.

As with Common Avens, goosegrass depends on animals for scattering the seeds and the round fruits cling to the woolly coats of sheep or the thick fur of rabbits and hares as they rub against them.

In this way they may be carried far enough away from the parent plant.

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