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Wild Flowers of Scotland
Chapter IV. Whin and Broom


IN the later spring the country-side is touched all over with colour—in lines, and patches, and masses.

The lines mark out the rough margins of the ploughed fields, just under the dividing fences, or light up the edges of woods, or follow the course of the burns. The patches crown the knobs of hard rock rising above the general level. The masses spread out over areas of waste land, or along the lower slopes of the hills.

Yellow, as yet, is the only wear; yellow in its utmost glory and spread, showing that spring is at the height. Ere long, the white, breaking out over the hawthorn, will mark the transition to summer. In the days, or weeks, during which the two seasons kiss without parting, the beauty is exceedmg. At no other time is the earth so delightful a place to live on.

As the yellow came, so it dies, first. Then the white passes into the prevailing green of summer; after which there are no more colour masses or patches that can be seen at a distance, till the fields fade into straw or golden shades, and the woods take on the tints of autumn.

In this the showering season of the year, the hues are kept incessantly pure. These cloud masses, with their lit summits and dark defiles, resting on an ocean of vapoury haze, have retired to the horizon to give the midday hours over to the sun. In the afternoon they will come up again to wash the faces of the flowers afresh; again to roll away from the west, that their edge may be touched by the sunset.

After her morning, and again after her evening bath, at this maidenly time of the year, nature looks very fresh and charming. It is then that one falls in love with her, and never tires of looking on her face. I can imagine no greater delight —it is one I have often known, and would not willingly miss—than to turn towards the largest mass of yellow within reach, in the interval between the ceasing of the afternoon shower and the setting of the sun. The blossoms are still trembling with the drops, and the linnets have come out of their hiding from the rain for an evensong.

The yellow belongs to the whin and to the broom—not nearly so much to the whin as to the broom. The fainter glow on these knobs of hard rock is of the whin; the brighter hue, around the edges of the field, and where the sloping bank retreats from the stream, is of the broom.

The whins may burn with an intenser if lower flame to one who is near, but theirs is not a travelling shade. Besides, there are not so many flowers, and some are half-hidden away amid the dark green of the shrub. It does not scatter its energies in colour, but conserves them for other uses.

The seedling begins life by putting forth very soft three-leaved foliage. But in successive leaves the inid-lobe extends and sharpens, until it becomes a very formidable spike. Thus this innocent child of nature very early in life develops into a veritable Becky Sharp, who, “ because of the spite of fortune, whose beginnings she couldn’t remember, never had been a girl—she had been a woman since she was eight years old.”

There must be some reason for this: there is for everything. Becky Sharp was once an ingenuous child. There may have been a time, also, when whins only put forth soft leaves. Wherefore, then, the change in the plant and the girl? “Many a dun had Becky talked to, and turned away from her fathers door; many a tradesman had she coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and the granting of one meal more.” That seems sufficient to account for the departure of the green leaves and the substitution of the bristles; together with the disposition not to mind whom she pricked— indeed, rather to enjoy it, so long as she kept herself right.

Let us suppose that the whin was driven out into waste places, and that there it was exposed to duns in the shape of grazing cattle, and troublesome tradesmen in the shape of nibbling rodents. In this hard school it would naturally acquire a certain precocity, quite shocking in its way, to the sheltered growths of the inlands.

Even in its present condition, it is still nibbled by the rabbits into compact masses of all manner of fantastic shapes. But as often as the persecution, which first taught it to look after itself, is repeated, it concentrates its forces, and redoubles its means of defence.

The tender foliage of its days of innocence would prove the most acceptable of bites. Unless some device were hit upon to stay the spoiler, speedy extinction was inevitable. Suppose some of the plants, by reason of the hardness of the leaf, to become less agreeable ; suppose the hardness to increase until it pricked the creature’s mouth. Here we have some sort of explanation of a soft-leaved plant becoming so formidable.

It may be asked why the broom did not change in the same way. Several answers may be suggested. I imagine that there is a bitterness about the broom, which makes it less sought after by animals than the sweeter-juiced whin.

I have seen cows pulling at every shrub round about, except the broom, even when the branches were so intermingled that it was a matter of some difficulty to disentangle them—just as I have seen them, with a delicacy one could scarcely have looked for in such large-mouthed creatures, picking the surrounding grass without disturbing the tall, upright meadow buttercup. Do not these same buttercups owe their name to the supposed partiality of the cow, which never tastes them if it can help it, and the butter-producing qualities in the milk they never enter? Or was it the cool, moist, fresh look in the cup that suggested this cool, fresh name?

One may test this element in the shrub by putting a bit of the bark in his mouth, just as he may discover why a cow avoids the buttercup by chewing a bit of the stem.

Again, I imagine that the broom has not been so long here; nor has it passed through anything like the hard discipline to sour its temper, raise its bristles, and put it on the defensive. And, lastly, the broom is not nearly so much a child of the wastes, where the chief danger lies.

The simple distinction between the areas of broom and whin is, that the whin frequents bare, arid, and sandy stretches; while the broom finds out unoccupied places, with a certain depth and richness of soil, such as the margin left where the plough could reach no nearer to the hedge.

Of course they cross into each other’s domain. Especially is this the case with the whin. The poor, though quite able to exist on what they have, never object to a better home. Often they are seen to mingle their dark and light green foliage; their dusky, and bright yellow blossoms. But there are limits in the direction of bareness which the broom positively refuses to cross.

The whin covers the knobs of hard rock, and pays for its lodging by helping to keep the thin sprinkling of soil, gathered from the waste of the stone, from being blown off by the wind or washed down by the rain. Because of its tenant, the rock gets the common name of whinstone.

Long straggling roots give the whin a lot of purchase, thus making it independent of depth. So much one will learn who tries to grub it up. This habit of root-growth it may have acquired along with the prickles. In the way, where there was enough of earth to strike straight down into, it became a simple necessity of existence, as soon as the shrub was driven beyond the limits of cultivation. It takes advantage of every crack to tighten its grasp.

It is a veritable fir tree among shrubs, and has much the same place and function in nature. In passing through fir forest or whin scrub, one has to watch his feet very carefully lest he trip over the exposed roots. The fall is to be avoided as either very rough or very thorny. Should the hard rock form a ridge, the fir tree and whin share it between them. Nothing is commoner than the dull glow of whin under the deep shadow of the fir needles. In such a situation, with its downward tending roots, the broom would starve or be stunted and easily torn up.

The sandy stretch of links around our coasts is the domain of the whin, occasionally shared by a clump of fir trees. Seldom or never is this area invaded by the broom. Round St. Andrews we have abundance of whin, with some fir trees, but not a single broom bush. And this is fairly representative of similar scenes elsewhere. The glow at the seaside, so pleasant in the cool sunshine, so suggestive of a day among the bents with club and ball, is still a comparatively dull glow. It is the glow of whin. Anyone who has seen whin and broom growing together will never mistake the one for the other.

The inland yellow is the yellow of broom. It is that which touches spring with masses and patches of colour. It is that which lights up our sweet, fresh country-sides. It is that which marks out the curved line of beauty of the burns, with their suggestions of rising trout. It is that which washes itself twice a day in the April showers, and then shines out in the April sunshine.

No wildling blossoms so freely as the broom.

This generous habit alone, but for its abundance, would make it a favourite in the garden. As lief imprison a little of the sunlight, or the blue of the sea, when all that is needed is a window, or an eye to let it in.

Sometimes the hawthorn strives to cover itself with white, but it seldom or never altogether succeeds—there is generally some bare spot left; whereas the broom will not rest from flowering till every leaf is hidden away. This may well have been the bush that burned “nec tamen con-sumebatur” No wonder that it makes the scene so bright, and gives a character to spring.

Blossom, blossom, everywhere, until the very bees theirselves are puzzled with the embarras de richesse. The special mechanism for dusting the insects back with pollen seems thrown away, when the very weight, as it lights, seems sufficient to bring down a yellow shower. The very atmosphere surrounding the plant, even when undisturbed, is filled with pollen rain.

The dark birds are dusted yellow as they pass out from their nests. One requires no dusting. It is probable that the head of the yellow-hammer has no other meaning than the blue cap of the chaffinch, or the light spot of the white-throat, and that the bird made no conscious selection of the spring brake for nesting. But it is no fancy that the yellow head affords it some concealment, as it sings its simple lay from the broom bush, or even amid the scantier blossoms of the whin.

One would naturally expect to find such seeming-hardy, free-spreading plants among the hills. And, even should the broom fail, after a certain altitude, because there was no depth of soil there, the whin—so habituated to bad treatment, able, through much practice, to cling on to any rock, and, through much privation, to subsist on any diet—should climb as high as other plants.

And yet both reach but a comparatively low altitude, beyond which no spring yellow is visible. Both are found sparingly at the Castleton of Brae-mar, some twelve hundred feet above sea-level, but do not manage to struggle beyond.

The whin is an interesting instance of a comparatively hardy shrub, that can face anything but a mountain. Its lowland companion, the fir tree, climbs away beyond, and leaves it lagging behind. In these windy regions one would imagine the advantage to lie with the lowlier shrub.


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