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Plant Life in the Scottish Highlands
The Shrubs and Trees of the Mixed Woods (Part 1)


THE SHRUBS AND TREES OF THE MIXED WOODS

As we have already observed in the account of the Pine Forests, woods and forests compose only a small proportion of the surface of the Highlands.  Of this area the amount under mixed woods is very small.

However, woods containing oaks, birch, rowan and aspen occur in many parts of the Highlands.  In all the larger valleys and glens, as in the Tay valley, the pass of Killiecrankie, the Trossachs and around Inverary, beautiful woods occur, rivaling in variety and loveliness the woods of the more hospitable south.  Again, in the western Highlands, wherever shelter from the wind and cold are obtainable, large stretches of mixed woods occur.  In the more exposed places thickets of birch take the place of the mixed woods and may be encountered up to about 1,000 feet above sea level.  Above this level the birch woods give place to the pine and moorlands.

Beyond this height the short season, the fierce winds, the severe frosts and the acid soil mixed woods impossible.

In the southern Highlands and in sheltered places in the western Highlands, the oak is the most important tree.  Elsewhere in the eastern and central regions, as well as the far north, woods are much scarcer and are usually composed of birch, which is also very common everywhere in the Highlands.

In the following description I shall describe the various trees to be found in the mixed woods of the Highlands and the various flowering plants which flourish beneath their shade.  I will commence with the oak.

The Oak (Quecus sessilifloria)

The oak woods are very beautiful, but if one would see them at their best, one should see the woods around Arisaig Bay and Beasdale in the far away western Highlands.

It was late October when I first visited this delectable region.  I was a day of brilliant sunshine, whilst the sky was pale azure blue.  All around the bay the beautiful oak woods came down to the scintillating sea, their dying leaves a find golden brown, contrasting with the dark brown slopes of the higher hills.  The soft west wind gently rustled among the dry leaves which seemed to whisper to one another as if they were mimicking the waves that hissed upon the sandy shore.

As I sat on the mossy roots of one of the oaks, I became aware of the real beauty of these woods in all the splendour of the autumn.  Rugged grey trunks and gnarled branches dressed in russet brown; brave trunks that had survived a thousand winter storms, the very emblems of strength and endurance.  Beneath, the mossy ground was covered with a crisp carpet of dying leaves where the red squirrel was searching for the last acorns before commencing his long winter sleep, and where the fairly-like roe-deer moved so gently that one would think they were afraid to disturb the long sleep of the withered leaves or the spirits that must inhabit this lovely spot.

As I looked across the bay I saw the jagged peaks of Sky, silhouetted like a row of shark’s teeth against the blue sky, and the strange peaks of Rum peeped over the rugged headlands enclosing the bay.

Behind me, beyond the low ridge, I saw the massive peak of Ben Nevis, over forty miles away, standing out majestically against the eastern sky, its ancient head and shoulders white with newly-fallen snow.  It stood dark and menacing as if King Winter had already taken up his residence there and was regarding these lovely regions with his icy eyes, waiting for the day when he could come down and claim them too.

The Oak (Quercus Robur) is perhaps the most typically British of all trees and is in many ways a very picturesque one.  Its massive, rugged trunk and gnarled mighty branches are unmistakable whether in mid-winter, when it stands bare to the winds and rain, or in the full beauty of mid-summer.

It is a beautiful tree, in its pale-green coat of springtime when its branches are gaily decked with catkins, or in mid-summer when it is clothed in a deep green coat of dense foliage, or in autumn when it has changed its somber green for a beautiful russet-brown, or again in winter when one can see its massive grandeur like that of a naked athlete.

The oak of the Highlands is a slightly different species to the common oak of the south and is know as Quercus sessiliflora.

Unlike Quercus Robur, it will grown on light soils if not too shallow.  For this reason it is chiefly found in the valleys where it ascends the sides until the soil becomes too thin for its requirements.  Naturally, it requires protection from fierce winds and extreme cold and this reason limit’s the areas suitable to it growth in the Highlands.

Quercus sessiliflora is a straight trunked tree with less spreading and less massive branches than the more common oak.  It is slow growing and lives to a great age.  It may attain a height of eighty or ninety feet in deep rich soil, but in the Highlands fifty feet is about the maximum attained.

The strong massive branches are covered in great numbers of crooked, gnarled twigs and are thickly clothed with leaves which commence to break from the buds about the beginning of May after the catkins have bloomed.  They are dark green above and oblong in shape with a very sinuate margin.  They are glabrous, the under surface being of a pale green.  These leaves are retained until the autumn, when they change to a deep brown and are gradually shed as the autumn gales howl through the woods.  The young trees, however, usually retain the old brown leaves till the next spring.

The flowers of the oak are of two kinds and are found separately upon the same tree.

The male flowers consists of catkins, which are about two inches in length and several occur together.

The female flowers are either solitary or several in a cluster and consist of a perianth of green scales, within which is enclosed the ovary and the three styles which project beyond the perianth ring.

The flowers are wind pollinated, and for this reason they appear before the leaves can hinder the passage of the pollen from the males.

The fruit of the oak is the familiar shiny green acorn in its hard green cup.  The fruit of Quercus sessiliflora has no stalk, and this is the chief structural difference between it and Quercus Robur.

My readers who know something of the English countryside must all have delightful memories of the Wild Cherry (Prunus Cerasus) in blossom in the southern woodlands in May, and must have been charmed by the snow-white masses of flowers and the delicate beauty of the individual blooms.  It is, I think, above all flowers the one which best portrays the beauty of spring, fresh, pure and dainty in its chaste beauty, with its reddish trunk surrounded by a sea of bluebells and shy primroses, while the blackbird sings from the topmost branch his praises to the Creator of all this loveliness.

In the Highlands, unfortunately, the Wild Cherry is rare, and except in the southern fringes is not even a native plant.

Its place is taken, however, by another species, the Bird Cherry (Prunus Padus), which is a lovely tree if less conspicuous than the wild cherry.  Its small clustered blooms make up for their lack of size by their delicate fragrance, which, borne upon the air with the faint perfume of opening birch, the aromatic odour of bog myrtle, and the mixed odour of the pine and moss and mountain air, is the very embodiment of all that is so delightful in this wild mountain country.

Perfumes and odors bring back to the memory many places and incidents.  Thus the rich odour of burning peat will bring back memories of that little white croft in Skye, nestling in the shadows of the Coolins, where one spent a never-to-be-forgotten holiday; if I but smell the sweet briar I am transported to the smooth rolling downs of the south, and the honey scent of heather brings back the delightful days I passed in the Cairngorms whilst rambling over their empurpled sides.

So with the Bird Cherry.  It brings back memories of spring in Speyside, of pale green birches sparkling with rain drops, of the murmur of rushing burns, their sides golden with marsh marigolds and beautified by the innocent blooms of the cuckoo flower and the bird cherry itself.  Its pale flowers star the woodsy edges of roadsides and streams, and its perfume tempts the passer-by to pluck the sprays of its fragile blooms to return with them to his apartment, where its subtle perfume will keep fresh his springtime memories.

The Bird Cherry never forms a large tree as the Wild Cherry does, and is usually a large, spreading shrub of from eight to ten feet in height, although in sheltered spots it may attain to the dignity of small tree. 

The leaves are usually oval in shape with a very finely-toothed border, and are smooth and shiny on the upper surface.

The flowers, which are rather small, are conspicuous not only by their sweet perfume, but also because they are arranged in close, long racemes which may be as much as six inches in length and contain many flowers.  These racemes are produced on short leafy branches.

The flower is constructed on the usual rose plan, with a central receptacle from which springs a single carpel (usually several in Rose Family).  From the sides of the receptable arise the many stamens and five creamy white petals.  Nectar is secreted in a ring around the receptacle.  The stigma is mature before the anthers so that cross-pollination will take place when insects arrive from old flowers to the newly-opened ones.  But as the stigma remains mature after the anthers have opened, self-fertilization will take place if cross-pollination has not already been arrived at. Thus the flowers are always certain to set seed.

After fertilization the corolla fades and the ovary swells to form a small, round, black fruit which contains a very hard, rugged stone containing the seed.  These small cherries, although very bitter, are much eaten by birds and thus the seeds are dropped at a distance form the parent plant.

The Birch (Betula alba)

If one was asked what was the loveliest tree in Britain I am sure many would reply the birch. This dainty tree, often no more than a large shrub, is one of Nature’s masterpieces.  Beautiful specimens are to be found in the lovely woods of the Trossachs. I have memories of idle summer days on the sylvan shores of Loch Achray where, lying on the mossy turf, I have dreamily watched the branches of the birch curving gracefully down to the water’s surface and gently agitating it like fairy fingers, its thin leaves whispering softly as if they also were afraid to break the tranquility.

No Scottish scene would be complete without the birch.  Not for it the sheltered valleys and lowlands, but the rugged hillsides and the wild glens, where we may find it struggling with the elements, precariously rooted on the face of steep precipices and crags; beside thundering waterfalls and raging torrents, by mountain tarns and on wind-swept moors, it reigns supreme.

To find it at its most beautiful, however, we must wander among the relics of the Old Caledonian Forest.  Magnificent trees may be found by lonely Loch Tulla.  Their silver trunks gleam bright in the sun in vivid contrast to the black pines, and nothing more graceful than their drooping branches can be imagined.  Autumn by Loch Tulla is unbelievable, the pines with their black leaves and red branches, the silver of the birch and the amber of their leaves, the bronzes, yellows and oranges of the ferns, and the blue of the loch and sky combine to make s symphony in colour.

It is beautiful at all seasons.  In winter the twigs of a birch wood give the impressions of a purple mist hanging over the hillside; in spring the bright freshness of its leavs and their delicate fragrance are not matched by any other tree; in summer after rain, when every leaf holds an iridescent crystal at its tip, it is the real ‘Lady of the Wood’; in autumn its fallen leaves give brightness and beauty to the scene and alleviate the feeling of sadness an autumn wood always engenders.

The birch is found at higher elevations than any other tree in the Highlands, often reaching 3,000 feet.  It forms broken thickets on the steep, craggy sides of the glens, open scrubby woods upon the sandy moraines of Speyside, and pure woods in many parts of the Highlands, especially in the more exposed and elevated parts of the valleys where the strength of the wind precludes any other trees.

A birch wood is not a dark or gloomy place, as is a beech wood in summer.  Its small, thin leaves give little shade, and as the trees rarely grow thickly, there is usually a well-developed undergrowth.  Bracken, heather and brambles cover the ground, whilst the beautiful mountain ash often bears it company.  The Wood Amemone, Chickweed Winter-green and Wood Geranium are often found in these woods, as are the Dog Violet and Cow-wheat.

It rarely attains more than eighty feet, and at its highest range is often no more than two feet in height.  Its trunk is slender and covered by the characteristic silvery bark.  The lower part of the trunk is usually fissured and grey, but higher up the bark is smooth, thick and tough, and of a beautiful, clear white; its toughness is shown by the fact that in fallen trunks the wood may be reduced to power contained in a cylinder of bark.

The trunk branches toward the summit and ramifies to form a large number of slender, very wiry twigs which droop towards the extremity.  They are perfectly adapted to withstand gales and fierce gusts of wind.

The branches are thickly covered by small, thin, triangular leaves which are of a tough consistency and quite smooth above.  Owing to their thin texture they form little humus.

The flowers, as in the case of the oak, are produced in catkins.  The male and the female catkins are both found on the same plant at the extremities of the branches.  The males are pendulous and light green in colour, but become reddish on opening in April.  The females are erect and much smaller, but are often produced on the same twigs as the males.  Seven tiny  flowers are covered by a tiny scale.  Each pistil produces two delicate styles that stick upright and project beyond the scale.

The flowers are wind pollinated.  They mature when the leaves are fully out, but this does not hinder the passage of the pollen as the leaves are so small.

After fertilization the female catkins form little cone-like bodies, each flower producing a tiny nut.  Each nut has a pair of tiny, brown wings, and in late summer they fly for considerable distances from the parent plant.  For this reason, if protected from grazing animals, the birch will continually increase its territory and as it is very hardy it can compete against all comers.  It is also very quick growing and is able to consolidate its newly-won positions in a remarkably short time.  For this reason, land not fit for agriculture is soon invaded, and if not cleared becomes a typical birch wood community.

In many parts of Scotland, especially in the northern Highlands, the birch woods are a perfectly matured association with their own particular fauna as well as flora.  Some of these woods may well be the most ancient flora of these islands.

We have actually two species of birch tree in Britain, the Silver Birch (B. alba) and the Hairy Birch (B. pubescens). The latter is the common birch of the Scottish woodlands and grows on more acid soil than the former.  The silver birch, however, is frequent in most parts of the Highlands and so is often confused.

In B. alba the leaves are smooth, whilst the young branches hang gracefully and, although devoid of hairs, are often warty in appearance. The fruit also helps to distinguish it, the wing being twice as wide as the seed.

In B. pubescens the leaves are usually hairy, the young twigs are erect and downy, whilst the seed wing is hardly wider than the seed.

Mountain Ash (Pyrus Aucuparia)

The Mountain Ash, or Rowan, as it is called in Scotland, is one our most handsome trees.  It is a glorious sight in May with its large, shapely, pinnate leaves and large panicles of creamy-white flowers, which often almost conceal its foliage. In the autumn its masses of bright, orange-red berries, shading to scarlet, make it a striking and very ornamental part of the landscape.

It is a tree of broken precipices and wild rocky hillsides, where it struggles upwards at many strange angles, its roots pushing deep down into the rock crevices and anchoring it securely against the winter gales.  It is in these places the Rowan is to be seen at its best.  It is also frequent in the forests and woods.  In young woods it grows quickly, but once it attains the height of fifteen to thirty feet in grows but little, and on being overtopped and overshadowed by other trees, it seems to give up the life struggle and gradually disappears from the flora.

On the rocky hillsides, however, there are few or no tree high enough to overtop it, indeed few except the birch even to compete with it and so, where sheltered from too much exposure to the wind, it attains its finest development.

The trunk is usually straight and branches at the middle to give the tree a very bushy appearance.

The leaves are very beautiful, and remind one forcibly of those of the Common Ash which, however, belongs to a different family.  Each leaf is a large structure and consists of six or seven pairs of leaflets and an odd, terminal one.  Each leaflet has a very short stalk, is oblong in form, and its margin is serrate, ie. toothed like a saw.  They are smooth above, but the lower surface is covered by a grayish down.  These graceful leaves, by being cut up into many leaflets, offer less resistance to strong winds than a large, simple leaf would do.  For this reason trees which usually grow in exposed situations have small leaves, e.g. birch, conifers and aspen.

The flowers are displayed in dense, branched corymbs at the extremity of the branches.  They are produced in such profusion that the tree appears to be a mass of bloom in May, the leaves being almost hidden.

Each flower is a miniature rose in form.  The cup-shaped calyx is covered in grayish down and adheres completely to the ovary, its five loves alternating with the creamy-white petals.  The stamens are numerous and form a ring around the three spreading styles.

The flowers produce a very sweet, almost sickly perfume which attracts myriads of honey -bees to partake of the abundant nectar secreted at the base of the calyx cup.

After fertilization the calyx and ovary swell and become fleshy, to form a rounded, orange-scarlet berry, or rather a pome, which is constructed in a similar fashion to that of the apple.  In this plant both calyx and ovary share n the formation of the fruit.

The ripe berries are greedily devoured by thrushes and blackbirds.  The seeds pass through the birds without damage, the birds’ digestive juices actually aiding germination by softening the hard seed-coat.

This is very efficient manner of seed distribution as the birds may fly a long distance from the parent tree before dropping the seeds.  It must be remembered also that the seed is dropped along with other waste matter which it can use whilst a seedling.  It thus get a good send off on its life struggle.

Aspen (Populus tremula)

This is another common tree in Highland woods and is a member of the Poplar tribe which is included in the Willow Family.  It may be found up to 1,600 feet in the Highlands and is thus quite a hardy tree.  It rarely forms a pure wood, but is found scattered among the other forest denizens.

It does not attain a very great size.  Its root system is rather extensive, but the roots do not descend very deeply into the soil.  For this reason it sis more common on damp soils where there is little risk from drought.  The roots send up large numbers of suckers which form thickets around the base of the tree.  These scarcely develop in the woodlands as they are in the shadow of other trees.  In more open situations, however, they form a ring of vegetation around the tree and may develop into tress themselves.

The Aspen is remarkable for its peculiar, restless foliage which seems to be in a state of perpetual motion, even on the calmest day in summer.  The old Highlanders believed this was so because of the Cross of Calvary was made from aspen woods and for this reason it leaves can never rest.

The reason for this restlessness is due to the fact that the long leaf stalk is compressed vertically in its upper part and is hence too weak to keep the leaf in a horizontal position, thus the slightest breeze is enough to put it in motion.

The leaves are small and rounded in form, of a thin texture, and with a toothed margin.  They are deep green above, but almost silvery beneath although they are completely smooth.  As they tremble in the wind, the alternation of dark and light surfaces gives a very strange and yet beautiful effect, which is accentuated when the tree is seen against the dark foliage of a pine corpse, or against the background of black clouds preceding a thunderstorm in summer.

The flowers of the Aspen like those of the Sallow are produced before the leaves.  To find them we must visit the tree in early April in the Highlands.  The tree will then be seen to be covered by large, wolly catkins which look, for all the world, like large, hairy caterpillars.  The male catkins are produced on different trees from the females.

The flowers are constructed similarly to those of the Willow, but the scales are deeply divided and are covered with long, brownish hairs.  The catkins differ from those of the Willow in the fact that they are always pendant.  This is because they are completely dependent on the wind for pollination and in their hanging position can take full advantage of the wind, and as they sway the pollen is shaken out of the anthers and transported in a cloud to the female catkins.  The male flowers each have seven or eight stamens as against one or two in the Willow.  This is because the wind pollination must be produced to make pollination more certain.  Fort his reason also the stigmas are much larger than in the Willow.

After fertilization the ovary forms a green capsule in which many seeds are produced.  From each seed arises a tuft of long, silky hairs.  In the summer of the capsules open and hosts of silky seeds fly away long distances upon the breeze, to fall far from the parent plant.

This tree is thus dependent on the wind for its existence, as without it, its flowers could not be pollinated and its seed could not be distributed.


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