Retiring May to leafy June

Hewan Cottage. Photo: The Bryce Collection
Hewan Cottage. Photo: The Bryce Collection

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

Yellow and bright as bullion unalloyed.

The broom thus described by Cowper has at all times attracted the attention of our poets. Wordsworth refers to it as “veins of gold” and Wharton as “the golden bloom.” To Thomson it is “the thick entangled broom,” while Scott notes “the broom’s tough roots.” Spenser and Wilson dwell on its sweet fragrance. Shakespeare associates it with disappointed love:

“Broom groves

Whose shadow the dismissed bachelor loves.”

It may or may not be the broom to which Tennyson refers when he likens the poet’s thoughts to seeds which,

“Springing forth anew,

Where’er they fell, behold,

Like to the mother plant in semblance grew

A flower all gold.”

It is a steep climb from the right-of-way by the river-side to the “Hewan” where, on a February day some 600 years ago, the blood of the English soldiery stained the plain and the steep banks.

A more peaceful scene, as we find it today, would be difficult to conceive, for all is peace and stillness, intensified rather than detracted from, by the hum of bees as they flit about the among the golden flowers of the broom. If only we had retained some of the poetic fancies of the early Greeks, might we not have been able to hand down the tradition that the broom sprang from the blood of our vanquished foes, for was not the broom the “Planta Genista,” the emblem of the early English kings?

It happened that Geoffrey of Anjou was accustomed to wear in his helmet as a crest a sprig of yellow broom. From this people began to call him “Plantagenet,” or the “wearer o’ the broom.” The Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England and widow of Henry V of Germany, married Geoffrey and their son became Henry II, King of England, known in English history as Henry Plantagenet.

The expression “new brooms sweep clean” is common in all countries and this use of the broom must be an ancient one for the generic name of the plant, “Sarothamnus” is a compound of two Greek words, meaning “a shrub” and “to sweep.”

The foliage is interesting. Leaves near the bottom of the plant are compound, that is, made up of three leaflets: midway they are simple, lance shaped, and without stalks: near the top they are reduced to scales, the fresh green stems doing the work of leaves. In spite of its fragrance, broom prepares no nectar but by an ingenious device it achieves cross-fertilisation. When a bee alights on the flower, the pistil is released and springs out like the spring of a watch to rub its stigma against the bee. An instant later the five long stamens are uncoiled and the bee is well coated again with pollen to be taken up by the pistil of the next flower by a similar process.

Generally, however, the flower is ruptured by this action and the petals do not regain their old positions but hang loose. An “exploded” flower is easily recognised and no bee will take the slightest notice of it. The broom also scatters its seeds by explosion, a sudden twisting and splitting of the pod throwing the ripe seeds in all directions.

“I love the season well

When forest glades are teeming with bright forms.”

Broom is a member of the enormous pea family and so too are the vetches which are represented by one species or another in every kind of habitat. So in the many different conditions prevailing in the glen we may find at one part the yellow vetch, at another the brilliant bluish purple tufted vetch, and at a third the reddish brown bush vetch.

According to the congeniality of the surroundings we may find specimens well developed or otherwise. To attain to a healthy state they require good support to climb upwards to light and air. It is interesting to notice what happens when a climbing plant finds no suitable support. It not only sprawls helplessly on the ground, but its growth is stunted and sickly and there seems to be no doubt but that pressure against proper support stimulates the healthy growth of the plant, for it is very apparent that such pressure causes clinging tendrils to become thicker and tougher. Like human faculties and powers they can only develop by use.

In the pea and in the vetch the tendrils are modified leaves, whereas in some other climbing plants such as the vine, the tendrils are slender pliant branches. In some of the stems only the last leaf has been converted, whereas in others lateral leaves have also become tendrils and stipules take the place and do the work of leaves. A vetch under proper conditions may grow to a height of five of six feet. If the roots of the vetch be examined, little white growths may be found there living on the food supplies prepared by the roots of the vetch. Yet these bacteria, as they are called, are not exactly parasites, taking all and giving nothing, but they act as a kind of partner and take in nitrogen from the air for the benefit of the vetch. The same arrangement may be found in the case of clover and that is how clover and vetches are so rich as nitrates. In some parts of the country clover and vetches are ploughed into the ground green to enrich the soil with their nitrogenous products.

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