Retiring May to leafy June

The steep cliff face along the North River Esk. Photo: The Bryce Collection
The steep cliff face along the North River Esk. Photo: The Bryce Collection

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

“The air is sweet and like a mild eyed saint. It liveth doing good.”

Where the fallen leaves have made a thick layer of leaf mould we may reasonably expect to find in thick clusters the charming Woodruff, whose brittle square stems bear “ruffles” of polished lance shaped leaves and above these carry delicate sprays of very small pure white flowers.

Small as the individual blossoms are, they are firm and exquisitely formed with a distinct tube and four lobes around the mouth, so much so that they might be carved out of white wax or ivory. For that reason and also because of the two branched stigma, we may be sure that they are fertilised by insects of a higher type and not by small flies or tiny beetles on which so many of the smaller varieties of flowers depend.

If we examine the “ruffs” or rosettes of leaves on one of the stems we find them arranged in ideal fashion. Not only do we find in any particular whorl the leaves exactly fill the space without any overlapping but we find each circle twisted so that the leaves of the upper one are exactly above the space below, so that each whorl gets as much air and light as is necessary.

The woodruff, like the fern, does not do well with too much light. Taken from the proper surrounds, the foliage becomes somewhat sickly and pale. Why this should be is not easily explained. We know that in the green leaves there is a living matter which manufactures food out of the moisture and gases of the atmosphere and it can only do so when helped by the sun.

It is from the sun’s rays that it gets the force it requires and it is helped by the green pigment or colouring matter that we call chlorophyll. Just how this chlorophyll or leaf green helps the living matter to make use of the sun’s rays is not known but it is certain that without its help, the living matter is unable to make the foodstuffs upon which the plant lives.

If we gather a handful of stems we shall find that as they dry they give off a very pleasing perfume like that of new mown hay. If a few stems be placed between the pages of a book they will retain their fragrance for a long time.

Many of the older country people used to collect it and put it in their linen drawers instead of lavender, partly on account of its odour and partly from the idea that it kept away moths.

It is supposed to get its name from the whorls of leaves which resemble the ruffs or ruffles worn in Queen Elizabeth’s time. Other writers say that the ruff is a corrupt form of rowel or “rouelle,” the French for wheel but more likely than any of these is that it is derived from “row,” the Anglo-Saxon word for sweet, as its fragrance would be appreciated long before ruffles or wheels were in common use.

“They breathe out

Their lives so unobtrusively, like hearts

Whose beatings are too gentle for the world.”

So many of our umbel-bearing plants grow rankly that as a family they are generally despised but unlike the hemlock, hogweed or bishopweed, wood sanicle lacks nothing in gracefulness and attractiveness.

It has been described as an inspiration to a designer, a model pattern in its foliage and blossom for lace, muslin or other light fabric. It is generally to be found in close company with the woodruff with its glossy divided leaves, its purple stem and its umbel of minute pinky flowers like tiny knobs.

There is just sufficient of pink in the flower to say they are coloured. They are of two kinds, some being sterile. As a rule the fertile flowers have no stems while the sterile ones have stems though short. When the flowers are so small the parts can only be distinguished by the aid of a microscope.

The origin of the name is the Latin verb “sano” I heal, and there is an old saying which has been handed down. “He who keeps sanicle laughs at the doctor.”

It has also been suggested that the name was given in honour of St Nicholas, called in Germany St Nickel, and the idea of healing is not departed from in that.

On one occasion two children had been brutally put to death by a country innkeeper and their bodies were accidentally discovered by St Nicholas. The good saint prayed over the bodies that life might be restored to the innocent victims, and he was successful in his intercession.

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