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Plant Life in the Scottish Highlands
Adaptation to Insects and Environment


The main idea of this book is not to give detailed technical descriptions of the flowers of the Highlands, but to describe each one in easy language so that you, my readers, will have little difficulty in recognizing the commoner species.

My object is to describe each plant in relation to its environment and the conditions of life it has to face, with special reference to its adaptations to combat these conditions.  I shall also describe the beautiful places these plants inhabit with descriptions of some of the loveliest spots in the Highlands.  I shall also show you how flowers are amazingly constructed with regard to insect visitors and fertilization.

I want you to regard wild flowers not just as museum exhibits, as lists of difficult Latin names, or as splashes of colour upon the masterpieces of Nature.  No, I wish you to regard them as sentient beings with hopes and fears and ambitions much like our own.  Their beauty, their colour, their perfume and their form are not just there to adorn the fields and mountain sides or to delight the eye.  They are part of the personality of the flower and are all adapted to their insect visitors and pollination.

For example, the honeysuckle has pale almost white flowers and a beautiful perfume in the evening time, solely for the purpose of making itself conspicuous by night to its benefactors, the nocturnal sphinx moths.  As we study this book, we shall meet many examples which show that colour and perfume are but devices for making flowers conspicuous to their insect visitors.

No woman ever took more trouble over her complexion, her dress and her deportment to attract the man she loved than the flower has taken to attract its particular benefactors.  The bright hued petals, whose every line and vein have their significance, the beautiful perfume and the sweet nectar hidden where its benefactor alone can find it, are utilized with just as much success as the cosmetics and perfumes of my lady.

Verily the Great Master said truly the lilies of the field that ‘Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’.  Yes, for where in all the world, whether among the works of Nature or of man, can one find such exquisite beauty, such wealth of colour and perfume, and such a subtle mixture of loveliness and freshness as we find among flowers?

We may ask why it is that the insect knows that a certain flower has hidden its nectar for its benefit?

For this reason. Insects existed long before flowering plants were evolved.  Certain types, however, were probably dependent on existing plant forms such as club-mosses, ferns, etc. for life, so that a relationship already existed between the Insect and Plant worlds.  But as plant forms evolved, types akin to pines developed, which produced pollen and were dependent of the wind for pollination.  Certain insects gradually took to pollen as a food for themselves and their larvae instead of spores of Ferns and Club-Mosses.  They included primitive bees, beetles, etc.

In the course of evolution, flowers produced the pollen-bearing stamens and the receptive stigma in the same flower, and they found that insects visiting flowers for pollen pollenized the flowers in their visits much more surely than the wind could do. So the commenced to produce coloured petals and then perfumes to attract insects.  Other types produced nectar in special glands, and certain insects, especially bees, visited the flowers for this nectar, mixing it with pollen to form food for their young.

As flowers became more and more adapted to their insect visitors, so did the insects become more and more adapted to the flowers they visited.

Flowers, finding that many insects visited them solely for nectar and transferred no pollen in return, began to hide the nectarines in spurs and tubes where only certain insects could reach it.

The first primitive bees were short-tongued, but gradually developed longer tongues in order to reach the concealed nectarines.  Today long-tongued bumble-bees are the only insects that can drain the long spurs of such plants as the linaria, the delphinium and the columbine, whilst these flowers are absolutely dependent on the bumble-bee for fertilization.

Certain insects also favored certain colours more than others.  Bumble-bees were more attracted by blue than by any other colour and hence flowers such as delphinium which are specially adapted to bumble-bees flaunt their favourite colour, blue.  At the same time, certain flowers, especially white flowers, which were not in themselves very conspicuous, developed sweet smelling perfumes to attract their visitors.

Other plants, such as the Umbellifers, catered for the mob such as flies, beetles and other short-tongued insects.  They took no trouble to conceal their nectar, producing it where it would be easily obtainable, flaunted white petals, and if perfumed, were rather strongly smelling.

Thus, throughout the flower world, we find that each species is adapted by colour, by perfume and by shape to certain insects or types of insects and that in many cases they are entirely dependent on their visitors for the production of the species.

We shall meet with plants, however, whose flowers are small and inconspicuous.  Most of these depend on self-fertilization for reproduction.

We may ask why it is that, if these flowers can set seed year after year by self-fertilization, others have taken such pains to make it impossible, for self-fertilization is a much surer process than pollination by insects.

But here we meet one of the great marvels of the flower world.  Darwin proved that if we took equal quantities of self-fertilized and cross-fertilized seed, a much greater percentage of cross-fertilized seed is fertile, and what is more it gives rise to a hardier and tougher stock.

Hence every plant is trying to attain the goal where all its seed must be cross-fertilized.  The devices to make sure of this are very numerous and we shall meet with many interesting types in the following chapters.

We shall also meet with types still dependent on the wind for pollination.  Willows, pines, crowberries, etc.  They all possess inconspicuous flowers and are less interesting than the other flowers.

Having discussed the adaptation and evolution of flowers with regard to their insect visitors, we must discuss the evolution and adaptation of plants to combat climatic conditions and environment.

All plant are faced with a hard struggle against cold and damp, heat and drought, animal enemies, conditions of environment (soil, altitude, etc.) and the competition of other species.

Throughout long ages plants have gradually adapted themselves to the climatic conditions of their particular stations.  Thus, for example, plants that inhabit hot, arid situations have evolved thick water-conserving tissues, hairy coasts, thorns and spines in order to live.  Those of the high mountains have a dwarf stature and a specialized architecture which enables them to combat Arctic conditions.

Thus we see that the form of the leaves and the build of a plant are largely due to climatic conditions.

To fight against the attacks of animals and insects many plants, such as the Ranunculus, have produced acrid juices which make them unpalatable, or again, they are armed with sharp prickly leaves as in the Holly, or with thorns as in the Hawthorn.  Thus have natural enemies aided in the evolution of plant forms.

Again plants must always struggle against the competition of their own species and of other species.  The first is combated by winged seeds which distribute the seeds far from the parent plant, or by light seeds which will be blown a considerable distance from the parent plant. Against the competition of other species some plants possess a rosett of leaves when young, which prevents other plants encroaching too close, or they send out runners which can take advantage of available space, or they may form close compact colonies which keep out other competitors.

Again plants growing in forest land are adapted to withstand the shade of trees and to climb over them to flower in the sunlight above.

These few examples show us in what a marvellous fashion plants have evolved because of the struggle for existence.

This adaptation to environment has resulted in plant associations. In a plant association we find different species of plants which are able to live together under the same conditions of environment, climate, competition, etc.

Thus in the pine wood association we find that the pines, whort berries, junipers, heaths, pyrolas, linnaea, Goodyera, etc., all live together to the exclusion of other species because they are specially adapted conditions prevailing in a pine wood.

It is my intention in this book to describe the various association of plants to be found in the Highlands.

We shall commence with the interesting association of Alpine plants which includes those plants specially adapted to the withstand conditions of high altitudes.  >From there we will descend to the association of the mountain pastures, followed by the moorlands and bogs, the pine forests, the mixed woods, the loch and their fringes, the marshlands, and lastly the meadows and pastures.

These groups contain many highly interesting plants, the study of which will give us a good insight into the marvels of the flower world.


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