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Wild Flowers of Scotland
Chapter I. The Flowers of Spring


THE daisy never dies. The eye of the winter as of the summer day, it is bellis perennis, in a double sense: a thing of beauty, throughout the year, and throughout the years.

So early do some plants flower, that they seem to belong as much to the past as 'to the coming season. Among such is the furze or whin. On any open winter day it may be traced, by its cocoanut scent, to where it lights up the leeside of turf dyke, or wood strip with its dark yellow blossoms. But for the bareness of the willow, which has not yet hung out a single catkin, the stillness of the woods, broken only by the drowsy noises of the gold-crests in the fir-trees, and the midday shadows falling down the coloured sunlight of the fallow field, one might be lulled, for a time, into forgetfulness of the season.

With little shelter except the sand-dunes, the whin is known to flower as early as November. Thenceforward it continues to make the desolate places of the land rejoice, until the golfers come out on the links, and the linties begin to build inside.

Daisy and whin have no other message than the mildness of the air: it may be before or after Christmas. Neither takes any part in Nature’s calendar, so that one can tell what time of year it is.

The earliest flower with a definite beginning, whose appearance one knows when to look for, is the colt’s-foot. It is not much of a flower in appearance: not unlike a rather indifferent dandelion, and of the same order. It is also a plant of somewhat evil omen, showing poverty or neglect. But it' is without a rival when, with its 'bright rays and disc of still warmer hue, it touches up the faded grasses; and where there is no choice, one is not disposed to be critical.

The spring note of the missel-thrush would miss its welcome if it came a little later, when the air was already thrilling with richer melodies. By the way, the singing came before the budding. The birds, and not the flowers, are the true heralds of spring. Ere the date of the colt’s-foot, say in early March, the mavis has eclipsed his bigger cousin, and the blackbird has trolled out his first mellow note. Nevertheless, this somewhat squalid forerunner of the flowTers, like the earliest of the birds, has a welcome all to itself.

The colt’s-foot is yellow. The first crocus to touch the dark soil of the garden is yellow. The beauty with which the daffodil takes the winds of March is yellow. Whatever plant has more hues than one, likes to show the yellow first.

Yellow is said to be the primitive colour: that which broke out over the prevailing green of the ancient earth, and began the long and increasingly close fellowship between bright insect and bright plant.

Spring is an early season. Before those who have eyes to see, each year repeats the story of the earth. Yellow is the complexion of spring, stealing over the prevailing green of our moist winters. The languid bee crawls from straw hive or hole in the turf dyke, and, shaking out his cramped wings, makes, with uncertain aim, begotten of lessened use and vitality, for the yellow spot.

The lesser celandine is also yellow when it is young and fresh, though it soon bleaches into white. Its star-like appearance is borrowed from the many-pointed rays — eight, or nine. This feature marks it out among the flowers, were there any so soon besides the colts - foot to confuse it with—gives it, so to speak, a certain individuality.

By the high roads, which, happily at the time, are not quite so dusty as they afterward become, it grows in a stunted form, and wears an away-from-home look.

It belongs to the burn-sides, where it brightens the broken passage of the angler from current to current and from pool to pool. Its associations are with running water and early trouting. Only those who have seen the dark green leaves against the reddish brown bank, and the yellow star against the dark green leaves, or both leaf and star standing out against the neutral-tinted stream, can tell all the celandine is. Only those, too, who know it as one of many pleasant impressions.

Nor is it the only flower which one has learned to like, less for itself than because of scene and surrounding. One who has been abroad, rod in hand, can never afterward separate the spring celandine from the flushed stream, such as we have at that season, the long shadows, the pink and black spots of the newly-landed trout, and all the fresh emotions attending the first cast and catch after a winter’s fast.

It is known as Wordsworth’s flower. Had he been an enthusiastic angler we could have understood the choice, because, for reasons just stated, all the members of the fraternity are disposed to appraise it beyond its merits. But being only an unattached _ admirer in search of beauty, the preference is more puzzling. He expressed his admiration in a sonnet which I would rather not quote. The Ayrshire poet moralised over the daisy, and Tennyson had the taste to follow so good an example. The Westmoreland poet must needs moralise over something else. I question whether the reputation, either of flower or poet, is very much bettered thereby.

The place of the fading celandine is filled by the anemone. Beginning with a pink bud, it opens into a white flower. It has a tendency to grow in patches, netted by underground stolons. The delicately cut foliage is in itself a delight. It is called nemorosa because it is found in woods, and anemone because it is found in windy places. Thus we get the singular combination “ anemone nemorosa,” which seems rather a contradiction in terms. The wood is still. The woodland storm no more troubles the sheltered glades where the anemones dwell, than the lash of waves reaches the depths of ocean. Far overhead the wind bends the topmost branches, and sings a spiritualised version of the ruder song of the sea. Those who find it growing in the wilds may call it anemone, and those who come upon the self-same plant in the woods may call it nemorosa; and both will then be satisfied.

The wood anemone creeps up the hillsides. On that playground of theirs the breezes deal gently with their favourite, fanning it into healthy motion, without scattering its loose flower. There it may chance to meet a sister.

The blue mountain anemone takes wood or open with equal thanks. No other anemones grow wild in Scotland. The summer pasque flower keeps to the chalk downs, of which we have none.

At much the same time, in much the same places as the anemone, appears the primrose; at least it shares the shadier half of the wind flowers domain.

More impatient of the wind, it may be called a shade flower. It loves the woods where the sunshine is broken into patches, and finds out all sorts of sheltered corners, or primrose niches. Sometimes it gets its roots into a crack of the rock overlooking a woodland pool, in which it can see itself.

It is by no means the first rose, as its name would seem to imply; nor is it a rose at all, any more than a jelly-fish is a fish. The only explanation I can offer of this second double name is that, whereas the earlier forms grow in out-of-the-way places, are scentless, and appear when out-of-door life has scarce as yet begun, the primrose is by the brookside, where the girls play; in the strip of wood, where the boys go a-nesting; and all on those bright days when the sun has taken the chill off the air and sufficiently dried the natural playgrounds.

Well do I remember finding my first thrush’s nest, under the green rosette with its crown of yellow. The spotted breast of the sitter, the spotted blue eggs when she arose, the crossing shadows, and the prattle of the burn, form a picture which has not yet perceptibly faded.

This fixes the date of the flower, according to my favourite way of reckoning, at the nestingtime of the song thrush; or, to descend to plain prose, somewhere between March and May. Impatient thrushes build, and early primroses blow, sooner; and I have found both eggs and flowers later. But the nesting and the blossoming reach their height together; so that on the day one gathers the largest handful of flowers, he will startle most sitting birds among the bushes.

This is the first flower to attract attention: the first scented flower; and as every flower is a rose to the vulgar, so this is the primrose.

The primulas—of which our primrose is one— range from the deepest dells to the highest mountains. Strangely enough, none of the strictly mountain primulas appear in Scotland, the home of British alpines. Our colour is yellow—in the primrose of a very pale cast, indefinitely sweet, like the scent of the flower; deepening in hue in the cowslip. According to their wont, the yellows come in spring.

We have two lilacs later in the season. One is in the north, and the other in the south. Both are very local. So very slight is the hold of the southern species that it can scarcely be regarded as Scots. The other we shall meet again. Both are moorland, or sub-alpine. Lilac and purple are the mountain colours. Happy is the man who, in garden, rockery, or greenhouse, gathers the primulas of Europe round those of Scotland.

Commonest of a lovely family, the dog violet shares the windy and exposed half of the anemone’s domain. I like to think of it on the bank, sloping down to ditch or stream, with the nest of the yellow-hammer hard by. There it so overtops the short, fresh grass, that every tiny speck of blue is seen. Hand in hand, like sisters born, it climbs the slope with the anemone, and goes just about as high.

It passes under the shadow far enough to join the primroses. There it grows larger, if more faintly hued flowers; and changes its name to the wood violet. The smaller, deeper blue bank violet is better. Whereas the shade-loving primrose sometimes wanders out into the open, the violet of the open enters the shades. Together with the anemone, primrose and violet make fairy glades worth searching out.

The three-coloured violet gets the credit of being parent to our garden pansies. A little later than the first appearance of the dog violets,—for it will save space elsewhere if I chat about some of the summer friends of these spring flowers,—heartsease scatters over the drier turf. On climbing the dykes into the grain field, it grows a long stem, at the expense of the blossom. There is some reason to suppose that the climbing has been the other way. Introduced with the grain, it may have crossed to the meadows, where it shortened its stalk, to the benefit of the flower.

Does heartsease climb the mountains, away beyond the utmost limit of the dog violet ? Does it there drop white and blue—all its shades save one—and become the yellow mountain violet ? If I am justified in linking the three-hued violet of the plain with the one-hued mountain violet, across the gap between where neither grows, then the heartsease may be a native after all: may have come down the slopes, and not over the dyke. The ascent, if such there was, must be pretty far back.

Still another violet haunts the marshes: not simply wet places, but genuine old bogs, which have never been reclaimed, and whose date must be primeval.

It recalls ankle-deep wading through mossy and peaty stretches, with frequent quickening of the motion, and jumps, lest the sinking should be inconveniently deep.

Never shall I forget one sunrise two thousand feet among the Perthshire hills, in a haunt of the marsh violet—the soaking mosses, the deep black pools which no summer heat could dry up; nor the plight I was in; nor the comments passed when, toward six in the morning, I appeared at my lodging by the Ardle side.

Blue in colour like the dog violet, it differs mainly in the roundness of the leaf—rounder even than that of the sweet violet.

A fancy sometimes helps one. I have never been able to disassociate the violets, so strangely perfect among the. native wild flowers, from the tits, so strangely perfect among the native wild birds. Blue is the predominant colour in both ; the number of species is the same ; and the moist stretches which yield the marsh violet yield also the marsh tit.

Still in wet places, though not so old, nor wild, nor far away, appear two other moisture lovers, familiar to those who never heard of the marsh violet, and chiefly to all readers of The May Queen.

By the meadow trenches blow the faint sweet cuckoo flowers,
And the wild marsh marigold shines like fire in swamps and hollows grey.

Permanent pasture is not common in Scotland. Few dry meadows lighten at spring-time with the passionate blossoming of those in the South. Our green stretches are mainly the overflow of streams —marshes rather than meadows.

Raw enough at other times, and in winter often impassable, such scenes become charming when, in April, a bright sisterhood of flowers is let loose over them. Here and there, among the pinks are glowing yellows.

Then the spring buttercups come out among the daisies of the bank, yielding the most charming effects with the simplest touches. The first is that with the bulb at the roots, to make it independent of the niggardness of the season; and the pale sepals, bent back so quaintly against the stem.

The later fibrous-rooted buttercups follow; the taller of them to o’ertop the lengthening grasses, and glisten among the brown panicles with a second effect, not less simple or charming than that among the daisies.

While this lasts, Spring is abroad as if she had taken lovely shape, visibly scattering from her lap ; and he who would find her will do well to go to such grassy banks, and look there. If the beauty is not passionate, it is altogether satisfying.


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