April showers and May flowers

Chapel Loan, leading to Rosslyn Chapel
Chapel Loan, leading to Rosslyn Chapel

Among the many visitors to Roslin during the spring and summer, the botany students are easily recognised as they arrive by the early afternoon train, with their vascula slung over their shoulders, and step blithely through the village, making their way to the Glen, or in the evening with boots and clothing somewhat mud-stained, and walking less blithely they reach the station for their homeward journey to town.

Students from the university, students from the Dick, veterinary college, students from the provincial training college, students of both sexes... all come class after class to learn here from Nature’s own book. A few of the lessons she seeks to teach all – lessons of form, design and colour, lessons of struggle, perseverance and survival, lessons of hope, sweetness and life, lessons of decay and death.

“Not a plant, a leaf, a flower but contains

A folio volume. We may read and read

And read again, and still find something new,

Something to please, something to instruct,

Even in the noisome weed.”

Roslin Glen has long been a happy hunting ground for botanists, and the month of May presents a wild profusion of beauty.

“Where pretty dead nettle goes courting”

The white and red dead nettles flower luxuriantly on the banks as we pass on towards the cemetery. Too rank perhaps to be called pretty, they provide, however, an evident example of self-preservation in plant life as these harmless plants in their habit of growth imitate their aggressive stinging relatives. Their whorls of flowers, creamy white or deep crimson, scantily covered with foliage leaves are prime favourites with bees. “Archangels” is a name sometimes given to these flowers and a story is told of a keen botanist who walked a considerable distance with a friend to secure specimens of Archangels for his herbarium, only to find to his great disappointment that they were old familiar friends under the guise of a fine striking name. What the ideal of his imagination was is not told.

“To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that often lie too deep for tears”

Stitchwort – Star of Bethlehem with its white starry clusters of flowers, struggles gamely to secure its hold on the same banks. How it got its name Stitchwort is uncertain. Some say that when the plants were studied mainly from the herbalist’s point of view, it may have been held to be an antidote against shortness of breath, which commonly causes a “stitch” in the side. Others again hold that the name was given because of a resemblance between the flower stalk and a thread. Its proper name, Stellaria Holostea is also interesting. Holostea means “hol,” all, and “ostean,” a bone. The stems have nodes like the joints of bones and are especially brittle at these nodes, and this accounts for the name – somewhat gruesome – given to this flower in some parts of the country, “Dead Men’s Bones.”

“Born to purple, born to joy and pleasance,

Thou dost not toil nor spin”

Beneath an elm tree, below the south-east corner of the cemetery wall is to be found an interesting specimen, a partial parasite, known as Toothwort. This is a comparatively recent growth, and consists at present of 12 heads of flowers. Two similar clumps were at one time to be found in the Glen but these have been somewhat ruthlessly “harried” presumably by botany students. It is to be hoped that this clump will not share the same fate. Toothwort is all white – without green leaves it cannot manufacture food for itself – or has only the faintest tinge of purple. Its thick fleshy stems are bowed at the top, which is covered by white flowers shaped like human teeth, and the lower part is clothed in thick scales, which are all the leaves it possesses. If we dig carefully around it and trace theses stems downward, we shall find its rootlets are attached to the rootlets of the tree by swollen suckers. 
By means of these it appropriates to itself part of the food supplies intended for the tree.

“Little flower, but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.”

On the stiff clay banks beneath the grim old castle, a history in itself, downy heads of Coltsfoot seeds are ripening to the winds, while the leaves have made their appearance and are now in their turn increasing in size and in stature. If, as is said, a single root of this plant will produce 20,000 seeds in a year it is well that they do not all get the chance to live. This plant is exceedingly difficult to root out where it has once established itself, and although advantageous for covering railway embankments and waste places, its picturesque aspect is best confined there. This plant has a peculiar habit of growth. Its flowers, commonly, though needlessly, mistaken for the Dandelion, appear in February and March, and it is only when the flowers are almost past that the leaves begin to show through the ground, as if the two had no connection. The leaves have long been known as British tobacco, and not very long ago were a substitute for “My Lady Nicotine,” mixed with dried rose leaves, the smoke inhaled was a sovereign remedy for asthma. They were commonly burned over charcoal in the sickroom of this malady. Medicinal preparations from this plant are still in use for curing colds, and hence the botanical name “Tussilago,” Latin tussis, a cough.

“When Lady-smocks all silver white

Do paint the meadows with delight

The cuckoo then on every tree

Thus sings the – Cuckoo”

The verse explains why Lady’s-smock is also called Cuckoo-flower, the faint sweet cuckoo flowers that blow by the meadow trenches beneath Gardener’s Brae, just at the entrance to the Glen. But there are many flowers in bloom during the same period, so it is somewhat difficult to see why Lady’s-smock should be singled out as the welcome to the cuckoo. Various reasons have been adduced for the name Lady’s-smock. Some say it is so named in honour of the Virgin Mary; others because the bloom is about its best at Lady Day; others again would have it “Ladies’ Smock” because it whitens the meadows like linen (smocks) laid out to bleach on grass. The petals are really of a faint lilac shade when they open, but rapidly fade in the sunshine to silvery white as described by the poet from Stratford. This plant belongs to the large family of cresses and is sometimes denoted Meadow Cress. At one time the leaves were used in this country in making salads and they are still to be had in markets on the Continent, but the flavour is much too pungent to be pleasant. The flowers and young leaves are used in the preparation of certain medicines being rich in nitrogen and sulphur. Cardamine, the family name means “overpowering the heart,” and old herbalists used to prescribe it for patients suffering from hysteria and epilepsy.

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