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Edible Wild Plants of Scotland
From The Scottish Naturalist Volume 3


KEEP in the hearts of all men, however high may be the culture to which they have attained, or however wrapt they may be in those pursuits — be they politics, or commerce, or literature — which seem farthest removed from all communion with nature — deep in all hearts (often indeed so deep, that seldom or never does it consciously reveal itself) there lurks, I believe, a love of the beauty of things in a wild and free state, unaffected by any human influence. Thus it is that the wild grandeur of the mountains, and the almost monotonous immensity of the sea, are so attractive; and it is doubtless this same feeling which makes it so difficult to effect the civilization —within a few generations at least—of savage tribes.

But, in civilized nations, it is the naturalist—not the mere classifier of species, nor he who gathers together a collection of objects of natural history as he would a collection of postage stamps, coins, or old china, but the true lover of nature—who is the chief inheritor of this love of the wild freshness oi the earth’s morning, still lingering on the mountain’s side, in the depths of the primeval forest, or amidst the waves of ocean. And thus it seems to me that to the naturalist, wild flowers and fruits will always be more beautiful and attractive than all the richest treasures of the garden.

But a comparison should scarcely be made, perhaps, between wild fruits and those which have become subject to man. The whole character of the latter has become changed; the bitter has been made sweet, and the small large—all freedom has been lost. To a certain extent they are produced in the form and at the time that man decrees; and thus, however much their utility may have been increased, the natural has, to a , greater or less extent, been lost. That this is not so to many eyes I am aware, but to the eye of the naturalist and of the artist (and are not these in many respects convertible terms?) it has gone for ever.

The Sloe (.Prunus spinosa L.) would scarcely (save, perhaps, “to boyish appetites”) be considered to merit a place among edible wild fruits, and yet, when gathered at the proper time— after the frosts of autumn have lit up the woods—a by no means despicable jelly may be made from the fruit. The blossoms, covering with “radiant sheen” the rough bank or rocky brow where this plant delights to grow, well merit the name of “spring’s banner,” which has been applied to them. The juice of the fruit is said to make a good marking ink for linen or woollen cloths, the part to be marked being placed on the fruit, and the letters pricked out with a pin. The young leaves dried are a substitute for tea, oftener perhaps used than is generally suspected! In Gaelic the Sloe is called an-droi-ghionn and preas-nan-airneag.

The Bullace {P. insititia L.) This, with its larger, less austere berry, is a rarer plant than the Sloe, to which, in many respects, it is similar. In Scotland, it is said not to extend north of Dumfries. It is, however, apparently wild in Perthshire.

The Gean (P. avium L.) is the origin of the garden cherry, and its fruit is too well known to need description. Though Gean (evidently, I think, derived from the French) is given in the manuals as the name of this, it is more especially a Scottish name, and applied to the black-fruited variety. "Withering says, “Green Tree in Scotland,” apparently having taken up the name wrongly.

The Bird-cherry, or Hag-berry (P. padus L.), can scarcely be considered to produce an edible fruit, though, according to Lightfoot, it was used in Scotland for flavouring wine or brandy. The Swedes are said to use the blossoms for a similar purpose. Of all our wild trees, none is more worthy of admiration than this when in full flower, and its long snowy racemes, melodious with the hum of the wild bees, hanging over some murmuring brook, while under its slender branches the wild hyacinth and pale primrose grow side by side.

The Cloud-berry, or Averon (Rubus chamcemorus L.) High up on the mountain side, where the bog-mosses grow in cushions of green, red, and yellow, flourishes the little mountain bramble. The flowers are large and white, and are followed in about six weeks by the large berries, at first red and opaque, then yellow and semi-transparent. The taste of the fruit is veiy peculiar, and (to my idea, at least) not very pleasant when uncooked; but when preserved, either as jam or jelly, it is very agreeable and much sought after. Should a frost come at the time of flowering — end of May and June — (not unfrequent at the high altitudes which this plant affects), the blossoms are unproductive: this is doubtless the reason why one often sees acres of the plant without a single berry. In the north of Europe also, the fruit is much used, and so is the Arctic Bramble (Rubus arcticus), which is, however, more nearly related to the following species. The Arctic Bramble, which has pink blossoms, has been reported as growing on Ben-y-Ghloe, but has not been recently, if ever, found there.

The Stone Bramble (R. saxatilis), or Roebuck Berry. This is another plant of the same genus, descending, however, to a lower elevation, and preferring the banks of subalpine streams and subalpine woods. The barren branches are long and trailing, but the fertile ones are shorter, and bear a few whitish blossoms, followed in due time by the berries, consisting of two or three scarlet drupes. In no place does the Stone Bramble show to greater advantage than when growing among the rounded pebbles on the banks of a Highland stream, the leafy shoots trailing among the stones, and the bright scarlet clusters of berries shining forth against the green and grey background. The fruit is of a peculiar acid flavour, and has been made into a by no means despicable jam—so my friend, Mr. J. M'Farlane, reports from experience. In Russia it is fermented with honey.

The Raspberry (R. Idceus), another plant of the same family, needs no description, and appears to be truly wild in many woods and on some mountain sides.

The Bramble (R. fruticosus) is equally well known, but its fruit is not nearly so appreciated. It is a much more handsome plant than the last-mentioned, and when trailing over some rock or rugged bank, its tinted leaves and snowy blossoms—sometimes rose-tinted—and green, red, and purple-black berries, make a picture that has often tempted the artist to linger awhile. The berries are often eaten, and afford a good jelly. Withering says that “they do not eat amiss with wine, and are rendered more palatable by being mixed with the juice of sloes.” In many parts, the country people say that after the end of September Brambles are not eatable, as they then become the property of the devil—probably, I suppose, for the reason that they are often touched by the frost in October.

The Dew-berry (R. ccesius) is somewhat similar to the Bramble, but is a rarer plant in Scotland.

The Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca L.). This is another of the wild fruits which requires no further mention than the name. The berries are sometimes white, and have then a (perhaps imaginary) finer flavour.

The Scotch Rose (Rosa spinosissima L.), the Downy-leaved Rose (R.villosa), the Sweet Briar or Eglantine (R. rubiginosa), and the Dog-rose (R. caninaJ, have all a more or less edible fruit. The hip or fruit has a different flavour in each species, and in preparing them for use the rough prickly inside must of course be removed. In the north of Europe they are mixed with wine, but may also be made into a jelly with sugar. In some parts of Russia a spirit is extracted from the flowers, and they are also preserved with honey and sugar. The hips of the Scotch Rose are purple-black, and have a pleasant subacid flavour. With their juice silk and muslin may be dyed of a peach colour, and with the addition of alum, a deep violet. Of the other species, the fruit of R. villosa is the most palatable, and that of the Sweet Briar the least so. The latter plant is said to be a doubtful native of Scotland; but, in Perthshire at least, it seems to have some claim to be considered indigenous. Thus speaks old Gerarde of the Dog-rose:—“It were to small purpose to use many words in the description thereof; for even children with great delight eat the berries thereof when they be ripe, make chains and other pretty gewgawes of the fruit; cookes and gentlewomen make tarts and such like dishes, for pleasure thereof; and therefore this shall suffice for the description.”

The Crab-apple (Pyrus malus L.) has scarcely an edible fruit in a wild condition, the juice being so very acid. It is the origin of the cultivated apple.

The Rowan, or Mountain Ash (P. aucuparia L.). There is perhaps no indigenous tree that adds greater beauty to a mountain wood in September or October than the Rowan, with its glowing vermillion berries, seen against a bright blue sky. In former times, and even not so very long ago, the tree was reputed sacred, and a sovereign charm against witchcraft. The berries may be used in various ways, but chiefly for making a jelly which is eaten with venison or mutton; the flavour of this jelly is very peculiar. Lightfoot says that in Jura the juice is used as an acid for punch, and that in some places the highlanders distil a very good spirit from the berries. According to Evelyn, ale and beer used to be brewed from them, and was a common and “incomparable drink” in Wales; while Withering reports that the berries, dried and ground, make wholesome bread. In Strathspey, on May Day (the ancient Beltane), the sheep used to, and perhaps may yet, be made to pass through a hoop of Rowan wood.

The White Beam (Pyrus aria L.) is rather rare in a wild state, and scarcely merits notice as an edible fruit-bearer save that the berries have, in the neighbourhood of Perth and elsewhere, unaccountably acquired the name of mulberries (a fruit entirely unlike the pomes of the White Beam), and are so called by persons who should know better.

All the above-named plants belong to the Rosacece; the next order producing esculent wild fruits is the Grossulariatece, but few of them have more than a doubtful claim to be considered indigenous in Scotland.

The Red Currant (.Ribes rubrum L.), Mountain Currant (R. alpinum L.), Black Currant (R. nigrum L.), and the Gooseberry (R. grossularia L.), are the plants belonging to this order that are included in the British list, but they are more often found in a naturalized than in a really wild condition. Whatever may be said for the others, R. alpinum is not usually considered wild in Scotland; and as the fruit is scarcely, from its insipidity, worth eating, we need not consider it further at present. The other species are too well known to need description. We may, however, note that the young leaves of the Black Currant “tinge spirits so as to resemble brandy,” and that the “seeds of Gooseberries—washed, dried, roasted, and ground—are a good substitute for coffee.”

The Elder, or Bour-tree (Sambucus nigra L.), is a well-known plant, but so far north as this it appears to be doubtfully indigenous, though common enough in many woods and hedges. Several parts of the plant have been, and one of them still is, used. From the purplish-black berries a wine is made, by no means despicable when mulled; and from the same part a preparation for colds, etc., is also prepared. The flowers are made into wine also, and the cluster of flower buds is said to make a delicious pickle to eat with mutton. Tea, even (which cannot, however, be recommended), has been made from the dried flowers. It is said not to be prudent to sleep under the shade of the tree, from its narcotic properties.

The Crow-berry (Empetrum nigrum L.) is one of those plants which clothe our mountain sides in great abundance, and whose very name brings to the memory of the naturalist many pleasant days on the hills, when the watery berries have been eagerly sought for, to allay the thirst that a too eager pursuit of his treasures—be they animal or Vegetable—under the broiling sun, has induced. In this country the berries are always purple-black, but in North America they are often purple, and in South America red. I was at one time rather puzzled to account for the name of the Crow-berry, for, though both the berry and the crow are of the same colour, yet that did not seem a sufficient reason why the Empetrum should be called Crow-berry. My friend, Mr. J. W. H. Traill, however, told me that he once saw a lot of hoodie-crows feeding on the berries, and that fact, I think, explains the name. I was not aware till recently that a jam could be made from Crow-berries, but it seems that they are not very unfrequently so used. To my idea, the taste of this jam is not agreeable. In large quantities the berries are said to occasion headache. In Iceland and Norway, a kind of wine is made from them. With alum, the berries dye a dark purple.

We now come to the genus Vactinium, of which all the British species produce an edible fruit. As the fruit in each species has different qualities, it will be well to consider them in detail.

The Blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.). I imagine that few people would declare the fruit of this plant to be neither agreeable nor wholesome, and yet that is the judgment that the great botanist, Sir J. E. Smith, “dignissimus Linncei viceres,” pronounced upon them. Dr. Johnston delivers a different opinion—“good plucked from the bush, better when eaten with cream in the manner of strawberries.” They also make good jam or jelly, which last the highlanders are said to flavour with whisky. The Blaeberry is one of the few wild fruits that are brought into the market, and in some places a considerable amount of money is made by those who gather them for sale. A variety with white berries is sometimes found, and has been observed in woods between Dunkeld and Blair-Athol by one of the Dukes of Athol.

The Great Bilberry (V. uliginosum L.). This is a much rarer plant than the last, and is almost confined to the higher mountains. The black berries have not much flavour, and in large quantities are said to cause giddiness.

The Red Whortle-berry, or Idaean Vine (V. vitis-idcea L.). Of late years especially, these berries, which in North Scotland are called Cran-berries (the true Cran-berry, V. oxycoccos, being scarcely known), have come into such extensive use for making a capital jelly or jam, that large quantities have been imported from Norway, and meet with a ready sale. The chief supply of Scotch-grown berries comes from the woods north of the Grampians, where the dark shining evergreen leaves and clusters of bright red berries make a beautiful carpet to the birch and pine woods in autumn, as do the white rose-tinted flowers in early summer.

The Cran-berry (V oxycoccos L.), with its delicate wiry stems creeping over the many coloured bog-mosses, its bright rose-coloured petals so curiously rolled back, and the purplish-red and spotted berries, can scarcely be esteemed a common plant in Scotland, though in a few favoured spots it grows in great abundance. Yet there is scarcely a mountain side, I believe, where it does not grow, and where a close search will not be rewarded. The berries have a peculiar flavour, much esteemed by many people, and disliked by others. They are especially used for making tarts, but it is chiefly with American Cran-berries—which, though larger and finer looking fruit, are yet inferior in flavour—that these are made. In some parts of the south of Scotland and north of England, Cranberries grow in sufficient abundance as to allow of their being brought to market. The cultivation of this plant has been recommended, and it is said that a bed five feet square ought to yield one quart of fruit—a profitable and easy method of cultivating land otherwise of little use.


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