Nostalgia - April showers to May flowers

Roslin Glen linn. Photo: The Bryce Collection
Roslin Glen linn. Photo: The Bryce Collection

Winnie Stevenson from Roslin Heritage Society, continues the series of articles, which appeared in the Midlothian Journal in 1914.

There’s to me a daintiness about these early flowers. That touches one like poetry.

A large family of fourteen or thereabouts is not as a rule readily overlooked, and so there are few flowers better know than various campions.

The common name probably comes from the Latin “campus,” a field, for campions are widely distributed, and are to be met with, not only in woods but also in meadows, in hedgerows, on railway embankments and on other waste grounds. It has been suggested that wreaths of these flowers were used to crown the champions at public games long ago, but this is not likely.

If the two words campion and champion are cognate, more appropriate is the idea the red campion, with its erect soldierly bearing and its bright scarlet tunic is itself a champion, while its near relative “ragged robin” has had its coat badly torn and been worsted in the fray. Though of a common family, closely related to the pink and sweet william of the garden, each flower has to a certain extent a distinct individuality.

White campions, for example, are to be seen at their best in the evening and even in the darkness of night when, by the exceedingly purity of the white petals, they seem to shine forth as if they were phosphorescent. This is to attract the night flying species of moths on which they depend for pollination. Most likely it is because of this light-giving effect that the botanical name Lychnis Jespertina – literally evening lamp – has been bestowed.

Red campion on the other hand behaves in exactly the reverse manner. Its coloured petals would make no show at all in the darkness and therefore it is most decidedly a child of the sun, its blossoms being fully expanded at mid-day. It is all the more remarkable that the mere change in colour should cause such a change in habit when we know that the red campion is merely a variety of the white species.

The bladder campion also droops at night and an old fable which is supposed to account for this may be recalled. The boy, Campion, was taken into the service of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom to collect flies during the daytime for her favourite owls, but Campion, like many other boy since his time, was inclined to be lazy and very often was to be found asleep in some quiet corner, and the owls had to do without their supper.

Finding him thus one day, the enraged goddess changed him into a flower as a punishment and he still retains the bag with which he was equipped. Even now when night begins to come on and owls may be expected to be abroad, Campion hangs his head partly for shame, partly in fear. But give a dog a bad name!

Another story would impose on the poor bladder Campion a drunkard for his godfather; that the bladder is the old skin bottle in which he used to store his wine and that the purple markings on the flower are the purple veins of the drunkard’s nose.

If we examine the flowers of the bladder campion we shall find all three classes – male flowers which produce pollen but have no pistil, female flowers which have the pistil but no pollen bearing stamens, and lastly perfect flowers which are self-pollinating, having both stamens and pistil.

The sea-campion, only found at the seaside is another variety of this genus, the difference in appearance being due to the different conditions of growth.

“In dewy glades

The peering Primrose, like sudden gladness,

Gleams on the soul.”

Every one loves the primroses which make little baskets with their circles of leaves and then fill them up with their dainty yellow flowers, but still there are many people like Wordsworth’s “Peter Bell” –

“A Primrose by the river’s brim

A yellow primrose was to him

But it was nothing more.”

Well! And what more can a primrose be but a primrose? It is not given to every one to see in a flower “a miracle of rare device” in its colour, its shape, its perfume, and even in its size. The colour of the primrose, a kind of sulphur yellow, is unique among the flowers of the country and only one other flower is known to match the shade, and that is only to be found on the banks of the far off Amazon.

In shape or rather in structure, primroses are of two distinct kinds – “Thrum-eyed” and “Needle-eyed.”

In the first of these the pistil has a long style so that the stigma reaches to the top of the flower tube while the stamens are short, arranged on the petals. In the other flower the conditions are reversed, the stamens being long and the style short reaching only to about the middle of the tube. This is an ideal arrangement to ensure cross fertilisation.

As the bees fly from one kind of flower to the other in search of honey, those parts of their bodies which were in contact with the stamens, transferring the pollen, must necessarily touch the corresponding part of the stigma of the next flower, no matter in what order the visits be paid.

German children call the primrose the “Key Flower” because it opens the door to the beauty and fragrance of spring. Several old legends relate how good children are led by the primrose to a bower or enchanted castle which can only be opened by the primrose. Inside are all manner of treasures and when the children have gathered all they can carry, the primrose again locks the door and hides all traces of the treasure bower with its broad leaves.

The primrose has always been a favourite flower with poets and Shakespeare, Milton, Cowper, Burns, and Goldsmith all refer to it.

The name Primrose and the family name Primula are both unfortunate. Both are derived from the Latin “primus,” first – and though one of the earliest, it is not as a rule the first flower of the year. Doubtless if we have a mild winter, primroses may be found in flower in the first days of the year but these are the exceptions.

Then again the primrose is no relation of the rose family but the name seems to have been gradually changed from “Primrolle,” the flower of early spring. Like other early flowering plants, the primrose has a store of food laid up in its underground stem.

The leaves of the primrose are said to be a choice food of the silk worm, and if this be so, it is an easy plant to cultivate in place of the mulberry tree. The underground stem is also of use as an emetic.

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