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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XXXIV – Botany


For simplicity and intensity of enjoyment, what can excel a country walk? Spring returns, and a new impulse is given to all inward and outward life. The tender green, peculiar to the vernal season, is spread over the leas, hedgerows, and gardens; while the woodside walks are literally paved with flowers – bluebells and violets, and primroses nursed in the recesses of gnarled roots of trees. There are men certainly, like Sir Michael de Fleming, a baronet fashionable in the gay world of Johnson’s time, who are not to be ruralised, preferring the smell of a flambeau at the playhouse to the sweet fragrance of nature, with the hum of busy insect life, and the lark rising blithely through the summer air; but with an open door to both theatres of pleasure, our taste inclines to the subtle and vague joyousness produced by the soft fresh breezes, the melody of birds, and

"The sweet smell
Of different flowers, in odour and in hue."

In his at-home researches, the experienced botanist knows well to confine himself chiefly to the southern parts of this shire. Throughout the higher grounds of Drymen parish, none of the rarer Scottish plants are found. The common ling (Erica vulgaris) and the fine-leaved heath (Erica cinerea) prevail; and, in the absence of heath, the Aira flexuosa, Festuea ovina, and vivipara are the principal grasses. All over the moorland, the cow or red whortle berry (Vaccinium vitas idoea) is abundant, and thrives where very few other plants will grow. Its leaves much resemble those of the box, both in texture and colour. Its flowers, which are of a delicate flesh-tint, appear in June; while its berries, of a rich crimson, are ripe in August. This plant is the badge of the clan M’Leod. In the low marshy parts, the Tofieldina palustris, Carex, or sedge; and Parnassia palustris abound. It is worthy of remark that where the last-mentioned plants are common, the soil is most congenial to the growth of oak coppice, producing bark of the best quality. Upon such ground, however, hard wood never reaches a large size; nor does the Pinus there outlive forty or fifty years. The Pinus larix, for example, begins to fail or rot in the heart. The vale of Endrick is well-wooded. At the park of Drumquhassle, Dalnair, and near the manse, there are some magnificent oaks and beeches; while at the churchyard gate, there is a noble ash, once the bell-tree, which has weathered at least 200 years. It now measures about 18 feet in circumference at one foot from the ground, and 17 feet 6 inches in the middle of the stem. Clustering round the walls of the castle of Duchray, is some remarkably fine ivy, next, in age and strength, to that at Kenilworth. In the old orchard, there are also some aged filbert trees, that produce a nut of a larger size and higher flavour than the common nut of the wood. They were brought originally from the monastery of Inchmahome, to which they had been conveyed from foreign parts.

Besides the plantations that surround the houses of proprietors in the arable part of the parish of Killearn, every glen and ravine is covered with copsewood. Several ancient yew trees, of remarkable size, are to be seen near the mansion of Ballikinrain; and oaks and silver firs, of equally gigantic proportions, on the estate of Killearn. One berry-bearing yew has a girth of 8 feet 10 inches; and a barren one, of 10 feet 9 inches. The largest oak measures 14 feet 4 inches; and a silver fir, 16 feet 5 inches. From many observations on yew trees, De Candolle, of Geneva, calculates their average annual increase of diameter at one-twelfth of an inch; and, by that rule, the age of the one yew mentioned must be about 440 years, and of the other 530. The oak has probably seen 460 years, and the silver fir 140. Bishop Watson says that as soon as a tree is worth a guinea, the most profitable plan is to cut it down. This we may supposed to have been an oak of 7 to 8 feet solid measure, and such the bishop, who took pleasure in his woods, deemed ripe for the axe. From want of timely thinning, the larch trees have not thriven. They are remarkable only for extreme height, many of them being 100 feet high. The banks of the lochs and glens, eastward through the Blane valley, furnish fields rich in vegetable productions. There is the white water-lily (Nymphoea alba), one of the most beautiful of the British plants. The Germans call it the sea-rose. The flower opens about 7 A.M., and closes at 4 in the afternoon; re-opening the following day. The bud forms below the water, and does not rise to the surface till it is ready to expand. Thus only leaves may be seen on a pond one day, and it may be covered with flowers the next. The water lobelia (Lobelia Dortmanna), a perennial plant, also presents itself. The flowers, which bloom in July, are of a pale lilac, and appear above the surface of the water; while the bottom of the lake lies clad with a thick carpet of leaves. On land, we have that splendid perennial, the great snap dragon (Antirrhinum majus). Although not a true native of this country, it is now very common on all old walls and rocks. The flowers vary much in colour; but they have all the same peculiarity of shape, and can be seen from July to September. Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) grows by the roadsides, where it produces its yellow flowers throughout the end of summer. The whole plant is hairy. The stem, which grows erect, to the height of about two feet, has somewhat the appearance of a small vascellum. Its roots are strong and woody. The qualities of the whole plant are tonic; and the flowers, when newly gathered, smell like apricots. Snakeweed (Polygonum bistorta) is here, as elsewhere in rich soil, very troublesome. It creeps rapidly underground, and destroys the grass and other crops. The root is a valuable astringent. The giant bell-flower (Campanula latifolia) is a coarse plant, 4 or 5 feet high; and has broad, hairy leaves. The blooms, which appear in August, are generally purple, though they occasionally vary to a pale rose-colour, and sometimes to white. The water hemlock, or cowbane (Cicuta virosa), is happily scarce. It is a poisonous production, and grows in ditches and about the sides of streams. The cuckoo pint (Arum maculatum), one of our most curious plants, is abundant in this district. Its large handsome leaves never fail to attract attention. They all proceed, shiningly, from the base; and are often spotted with black. The flowers rise from the center, and are formed of a light green spatha. This envelops the parts of fructification, which consist of a ring of germens, and one of anthers, and above them another ring of apparently imperfect pistils. Above these again rises the spadix, which is generally of a pale purple hue. The root is large; and, in England, after proper preparation, is sold and used as a substitute for bread flour. Among the other wild plants around Strathblane are the common celandine (Chelidonum majus); the shining crane’s-bill (Genarium lucidum); and the bladder campion (Silene inflata). In Campsie Glen, the Gymnodenia conopsea so luxuriates as sometimes to scent the air. The so-called Weissia tenuirostris species, which was long supposed to grow exclusively here, has been proved to be simply a curious variety of Tortula tortuosa.

Hardwood of every description does well in the lower part of Fintry parish. Larch and spruces thrive in the plantations, all of which were planted by the late Mr. Speirs; who, in 1834, also introduced the Abies Douglasiae. The mountain ranges furnish almost the whole family of ferns, mosses, lichens, and gnaphaliums. On the moor pastures may be found, together with the juniper (Juniperus communis), the Gentiana campestris, and the Empetrum nigrum. The field gentian, while the commonest of all the British species, is never seen on calcareous soils. It is an annual, and flowers in September. Its bitter is so aromatic, that, in Sweden, it is frequently used instead of hops. The crowberry affords abundant food for the moor game. It is a small trailing shrub with curious leaves, the edges curling up till they meet at the back. Its berries, which grow in clusters, are used as a dye. In the woods we find the lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). This beautiful and delightfully-fragrant flower is, however, most abundant in rocky situations, and seldom produces its large crimson berries in any other place. But everywhere it spreads rapidly from its creeping roots.

"Fair flower that, lapped in lowly glade,
Dost hide beneath the greenwood shade;
Than whom the vernal gale
None fairer wakes on bank, or spray;
Our Scottish lily of the May,
Our lily of the vale."

The sweet woodruff (Asperula adorata), likewise in sight, is well known for its fragrance. Though quite destitute of smell when gathered, its sweetness increases as it dries, and remains long permanent. On account of this virtue, it is frequently put into drawers to give an agreeable odour to linen. The name, woodruff, alludes to the leaves, the whole of which are so placed as to look like a series of little ruffs down the stem. In the groves and thickets, nestles the curious and pretty little tuberous moschatell (Adoxa moschatellina). Being very delicate, and all green, it is easily over-looked. The leaves spring from the root on very long footstalks, and are divided at three or four parts. Its small yellow flowers have a musky smell in the evening, or in the early morning when the dew is on them. Adoxa signifies not showy.

Passing to the parish of Logie, we fall upon several other interesting phoenogamous plants. The scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), has the name of "poor man’s weather-glass," or "shepherd’s barometer," from the corolla closing before rain. It, however, always shuts soon after mid-day, though the sun be shining. It produces lovely flowers of a bright scarlet; but these are occasionally found blue, and sometimes white. The leaves are ovate. Most young people are acquainted with the quaking grass (Briza media). The spikes of flowers are very elegant; and the thread-like stalks, to each spikelet, get tremulous with the slightest wind: hence its name. Rampant fumitory (Fumaria capreolata), has a climbing stem. Its petrioles twine; and the calyx leaves, which are broadly oval, are larger than the seed vessel, or fruit. It is generally to be met with in corn-fields; but may also be seen hanging very gracefully from rocks. The flower is a pale purple. Dwarf furze (Ulex nanus), a spiny shrub, usually trailing, is only a variety of the whin or gorse. The yellow ox-eye (Chrysanthemum segatum) has peduncles that thicken upwards. The leaves, which clasp the stem, are smooth-cut at the top, and toothed at the base. The flowers are large, and yellow both at the ray and centre. Marsh mallow (Caltha palustris), has an erect stem. Its lower leaves are large, heart-shaped, and of a deep glossy green. It is a handsome plant; but is not considered good for cattle, and they generally refuse it. Red mint (Mentha rubra) shows a stem upright and zig-zag. The leaves are ovate, sharply serrated, and globrous. Its pedicels are smooth; and the flowers, which are whorled, are of a reddish purple. The sea starwort (Aster tripolium), with smooth stem, has linear leaves, lanceolate, and fleshy. The flowers are in corymbs, with yellow disk, and blue or purple rays. The golden rod (Solidago virgaurea) might be mistaken for the great rag-wort (Senecio jacobea), but the leaves distinguish it. They are long and narrow, though the lower ones are broader and stalked. Is stem leaves are lanceolate; and the spikes of golden-coloured flowers, erect and crowded. Dyer’s rocket, or wild mignionette (Reseda luteola) is found in great abundance at the foot of Dunmyat. The white variety of the purple fox-glove (Digitalis purpurea) grows on the Ochils near Menstrie. Deadly night-shade or dwale (Atropa belladonna), the berries of which are highly poisonous, abounds on the Abbey Craig. Mimulus luteusis got on the banks of the Forth below Causewayhead, at a great distance from gardens, and perfectly naturalized. Crooked yellow stonecrop (Sedum reflexum) may be seen on the roof of a house, in the above-mentioned village, beside the common house leek (Sempervioum tectorum). Jagged-leaved crane’s bill (Geranium dissectum) is very thick in this neighbourhood. In 1827, the hay-crop was considerably damaged by it, having, no doubt, been sown with the seed.

Throughout the King’s park, Stirling, there are various pretty plants. Woody nightshade, or bitter-sweet (Solannum dulcamara), is a climbing shrub, with heart-shaped leaves, and bright purple flowers in drooping clusters. The stamens are yellow, and two green tubercles appear at the base of each petal. The berries, which are red, are poisonous. Heart’s-ease (Viola tri-color), so sweet, modest, and unassuming, is an old favourite with the poet and florist. Its stems are angular and spreading; its leaves oblong, and deeply scooped; its stipules leafy; and its petals longer than the calyx. The flowers vary much both in size and colour. This plant shows, in a remarkable manner, what can be done by cultivation; for the wild species, compared with their garden relations, look puny and starved. The meadow saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata) has leaves of a kidney shape, and lobed, while the lower ones rest on long petioles. Its root is tuberous, and flower white. The great wild valerian (Valeriana officinalis) rises to a height of about 3 feet, and produces a large bunch of pale flesh-coloured flowers. The root is aromatic and antispasmodic. It is said that cats are very fond of the smell.

St. Ninians parish possesses some splendid specimens of the fir tribe. The most extensive plantations are on the lands of Sauchie and Touch, where they amount to nearly a thousand acres. In front of Bannockburn house there are two silver firs, Pinus picea, remarkable at once for their size and beauty; and in the same park stands a magnificent chesnut. In the woods of Touch some grand old oak trees are to be seen, together with a fine cedar, supposed to be the largest in Britain. This district of country, including almost every variety of soil and surface, except high hills and sea shore, presents a fertile field for research. The following are a few of the more rare and interesting plants to be found: -

Alisma plantago (Water plantain).
Plantago media (Hoary plantain).
Prunus padus (Bird cherry).
Pyrola medea (Winter green).
Stellaria memorum (Wood stitchwood).
Viola palustris (Marsh violet).

And there is also the thyme-leaved flax seed (Radiola millegrana), a most curious little plant, so minute as only to be observed by the searching eye of a botanist. It is scarcely more than an inch in height, and must be sought for on boggy soils and in the west parts of heaths.

The Larbert district is not considered to be highly favourable to the growth of timber. In Kinnaird park, however, are some oaks of a large girth, and a fine avenue of limes. Near the house of Carronhall stands a Wych elm of singular beauty, which, at 5 feet from the ground, measures above 14 feet in circumference. There are also several Huntingdon willows (Salix alba of Linnaeus) of nearly 12 feet girth. The timber of this tree is of great value, combining toughness with lightness; and, on the deep soil of the carse, its growth is rapid. Almost all the ordinary wild flowers and herbs are to be found in the woods, waysides, or fields. Both the purple and the white foxglove are common. The freckled and spotted bell of this stately plant is elegantly shaped, and the stamina, two long and two short, are curiously formed and placed so as to touch the pistil. Centaury (Erythroea centaurium) is abundant in most of the dry pastures. Its pretty rose-coloured blossoms are not unlike jessamine in shape; but the flower is so sensible of damp that it is only seen expanding during the brightest sunshine. Here, too, is the little eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis). It is a delicate and lowly herb, extremely sweet and attractive in appearance. The country people use it for diseases of the eye.

The trees planted or indigeous around Falkirk are oak, Scotch fir, ash, birch, beech, hazel, and larch. All the species thrive well; but hard wood is chiefly grown. The wild plants are more numerous than rare. Only one is worth being specified – the Osmunda regalis, or flowering fern, which is found on the banks of the Avon near Polmont. It is very noble in size, being commonly 7 or 8 feet high, and we have seen it here nearly 12. In most cases it is erect, in large masses, so as to form a thick bush; but near the water it is gracefully pendant. Withering, the botanist, calls this noble plant the "flower-crowned prince of British ferns."


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