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Plant Life in the Scottish Highlands
The Meadows and Pastures of the Highlands

Out last large association of plants to be found in the Highlands is that of the meadows and pastures in which plant life has been modified by the interference of man, who has manured the soil, altered the drainage and has unconsciously built up a very well-marked association.

The meadows are found along the valley bottoms, where the rivers have built up areas of silt and sand which are more fertile than the hillsides, and where the land is sheltered from winds and storms by the high mountain walls which hem them in.  We find them again around the loch shores and at their heads, where large patches of alluvial soil are to be found, and also along the sea shores wherever a strip of low, fairly level land is to be found and where there is shelter wherever a strip of low, fairly level land is to be found and where there is shelter from the prevailing winds.

Naturally meadowland is much more expansive in the large river valleys as in Tayside and Speyside, and in the less mountainous areas as in the country around Oban.

It is bounded by the suitability of the soil and by the altitude.  Very little, if any, is to be found above 1,000 feet in the Highlands although in some places as at Glen More in Rothiemurchus cultivated land and meadows are to be found at or above the altitude.  This spot, however, is well sheltered by the mountains and surrounding forests.  Above this height the long winter and exposure make meadowlands impracticable.

The meadows vary much physically.  They are often marshy (especially those in the valley bottoms) and intersected by many small streams. In this type of meadow, marsh platns such as the Marsh Marigold, Marsh Orchids and Lousewort are common and Rushes intrude among the grasses.  These meadows are too damp for oats or root crops and are usually grazed by cattle and mown for hay in summer.

On the drier soils and more sloping meadows which are well drained, the marsh plants disappear and here Ox-eye Daisies, Buttercups and Yellow Rattle predominate among the tall grasses.

On the sandy soils washed down from the ancient moraines, as in Speyside, the grass is short, owing to the dryness of the soil, and in these meadows shorter and more tufted plants often of a xerophilous nature replace the tall Buttercups; they include the Field Gentian, Harebell, Tufted Vetch, Lady’s Fingers and Field Pansy.

In some areas field of oats, roots and potatoes take the place of the meadows.  These fields have been made with infinite toil and patience by the hard-working Scottish farmers and in spite of adverse conditions yield quite good crops.

The pastures are to be found along the foothills of the mountains.  They are rarely cut, and never manured, and are usually unfenced, being roamed by cattle and sheep.  Their upper limit is undefined as they gradually merge into the moorlands and mountain pastures where grasses largely disappear and heather, etc., take their place.  The principal vegetation of these pastures consists of grasses and sedges, whilst Orchids, Vetches and Lady’s Mantle are widely distributed.

The meadows and pastures are the homes of many interesting and beautiful plants and include many of our commonest species.  In these Highland meadows one can study Nature beneath the shadow of the mountain tops, whilst the mountain streams rush down with cheerful chatter though the smiling meadows and the winds ruffle the heavy ears of the oats and waft the scent of Clover and the sweet perfume of the Lady’s Fingers across the valley.  There, little white crofts hide in their encircling ring of trees, and patient-eyed cattle graze contentedly, knee deep in the marshy fields, whilst overhead the blue sky is flecked with soft, white, feathery clouds against which the granite peaks stand out in fine relief.  A lark soars high, singing sweetly as it rises towards the life-giving sun, as if praising it and thanking it for its warmth and light.

Harebell (Campanula rotund folia)

I will commence my description of the various plants of the Highland meadows and pastures with the beautiful blue Harebell.

Many of my readers must be acquainted with that beautiful little Scottish glen, Glen Nevis, which runs back, deep into the heart of the Lochaber, between the massive buttresses of Ben Nevis and the graceful peaks of the Mamore Forest.

It is a lovely glen, whether it be in the lower reaches, where it widens out into grassy meadows with here and there in a white croft, and the river Nevis gliding gracefully between its tree-lined banks as it sweeps on to the nearby sea.  Or beyond, where the mountains close in upon the river which dashes down tumultuously in its deep, granite gorge, the waters boiling and roaring among the boulders; or where the Heather moors and Myrtle bogs fill the valley and cataracts dash down the steep mountains side from the fastness of Ben Nevis and his giant brothers; or where we again find a tiny croft amid green, boggy meadows, yellow with Marsh Merigolds, watered by the beautiful cascade which tumbles in sparkling foam down the precipitous sides of Sgur a’Mhaim.

Yes, Glen Nevis is beautiful, and especially in summer when the Yellow Saxifrage hangs down n golden tufts beside the waterfalls, and the Orchids fill the meadows and bogs with their colour and sweet perfume and the mountain air is fragrant with Bog Myrtle, whilst the lovely, deep-pink Dog Roses smile from every bank and in every crevice right down to the water’s edge sway the pale blue bells of the Harebell.  Long may the peace and loveliness of this glen remain untouched by the ugly hand of so-called civilization and progress.

Here in Glen Nevis the Harebells are a deeper blue than elsewhere.  They seem to have set out to rival the blue of the Lochaber sky, that pale blue washed by a thousand stoms of rain until it is clear and brilliant.

Let us top for a moment and examine this delightful flower whose bright bells dance in the soft breeze on every bank, and in the mossy crevices of the rocks and give so much delight to the passer-by.

The Harebell, or as it is called popularly, the Scottish Blue-bell, is well adapted to exposed situations in grassy pastures and on banks.  Its wiry stems are tough enough to withstand the ferocity of the wind, whilst its fine, narrow leaves offer little surface to the air, and hence reduce loss of water by transpiration.

The rootstock is very slender and creeping, and well adapted to penetrate deep into the fissures of rock in search of moisture.

A rosette of radical leaves, which dies away at the time of flowering, crowns the rootstock.  They are long-stalked and are heart-shaped, often quite round, hence the scientific name, rotundifolia.

From the rosette arise the flowering stems which may attain a height of eighteen inches to two feet in good soil and sheltered localities, where it is often branched (in meadows of Speyside I have come across many plants which exceeded that height) or it may hardly attain six inches in poor soil or on exposed situations (I have found them in the Lower Cairngorms with a simple stem no more than four inches high and crowned by one large flower).

The flowering stems are covered with many long, very narrow leaves, which are quite different in appearance to the radical leaves.   The reason for the differences in the leaves is this.  Early in the year, before the plant has sent up its flowering stems, it is surrounded by grasses, they are in full sunlight and exposed to the wind.  Hence the plant has no need of the broad shade leaves, but required leaves which present as small a surface as possible to the sun and wind.

The flowering stems support a raceme of a few large, drooping, pale blue flowers which may be reduced to a solitary terminal bloom.  They are very beautiful structures and a detailed study of them will show one how marvelously they are adapted to their insect visitors.

Their drooping position protects the pollen from the rain and makes it impossible for crawling insects to enter and pilfer the pollen without fertilizing the flower.

Each bloom consists of a wide-mouthed bell formed by the five united petals.  The nectarines are situated at the base of the style near the bottom of the bell.  If the flower that we are examining is near the point of opening, we shall find that the style is completely covered by the five stamens which at this time are united at their margins.  The anthers form a closed ring around the upper portion of the style.

In older blooms we shall see that the style has commenced to lengthen and is pushing through the anther ring.  As the style is covered with many hairs, the pollen s wept out of the anthers and carried upwards beyond them.  At this stage the three stigmatic surfaces are pressed close together to guard against self-fertilization.

As soon as the anthers have shed all their pollen they curve back and downwards from the style.  An insect visiting the flower at this stage will become dusted with pollen from the stylar brush as it tries to reach the nectarines.  If the anthers have not curled back already, the slightest touch of the corolla by the insect is enough to make them do so.

At a still later stage the three stigmatic flaps curve back to expose their receptive surfaces at the entrance to the bell.  An insect arriving from another flower will leave pollen from that flower upon the stigmas.  On withdrawing any danger of self-fertilization is averted by the fact that the receptive surfaces are on the upper sides of the flaps.

The depth of the bell and the fact that the nectarines are at its base prove that the nectar is conserved for long-tongued insects.  Large bees, of which blue is the favourite colour, and butterflies are the flower’s chief benefactors.

The stylar brush mechanism is common among flowers, being found throughout the great Composite Family as well as in the Bellflower Family.

Thus we see that these lovely flowers, which charm the eye, are not beautiful just to delight our fancies or to beautify the countryside.  Their function is much more prosaic, as they are simply to attract the bees and so obtain cross-pollination, the ultimate goal aimed at by all plants.

The fruit of the Harebell is also a very clever structure consisting of an ovoid, semi-transparent capsule.  At its base we shall notice three or four small, triangular valves closed by a small flap.  In dry weather these flaps open and on being shaken by the wind the seeds are jerked out to a considerable distance, but in wet weather the flaps close and protect the precious seeds from damp.

As often happens among blue flowers, pure white blooms are frequently found.  The depth of blue is also very variable, for in southern England the blue is often very pale and faded, but in the Highlands it is bright and often deep.

The Buttercups (Ranunculus

One of the loveliest sight in these islands in early summer is that of the meadows, golden with Buttercups.  A sign of bad farming, some say, and this may account for the rarity of buttercup filled meadows in the Highlands, which are so meticulously farmed that the Buttercup has a hard struggle to live in the hay crop.  A plant so hardy and well equipped for success in life is very difficult to exterminate and golden banks, roadsides, waste ground and badly kept meadows give point to this statement.

The Buttercup is a lovely flower and one of our most popular wildings, for it commences to bloom when the warm sunshine tells us that summer has arrived, when the cuckoo proclaims from every wood that life is worth-while and the swallows dive and glide over the meadow lands in the sheer joy of living.

Few people are aware that the flower commonly known as the Buttercup is not a single species.  The Common Buttercup of the meadows is Ranunculus acris, a very abundant and handsome plant; but besides this species we have two other very common species which are found in similar situations. They are the Bulbous Buttercup (R.bulbous), remarkable for its bulbous stock, and the Creeping Buttercup (R. repens), a very common and mischievous weed whose creeping stems make it very difficult to eradicate.

We will commence with the Common Buttercup, of which a description will illustrate how admirably the Buttercups are suited to life in the meadows.  This fine plant is a perennial with long, fibrous roots which push deep down into the soil to the lower moister layers where they are sage from winter cold and summer drought.

The leaves, which at first are all radical, have long stalks which carry the leaves up above the surrounding grasses and allow them to obtain the maximum quantity of light.  These radical leaves keep competitors at a distance, as in their shade they have little chance to thrive.  The leaves, which are hairy on both surfaces as a precaution against excessive transpiration, are cut into five or seven lobes, which are themselves cut into three much indented lobes and are fairly broad and wedge-shaped.

From the summit of the stock arises the tall, erect, branching, flowering stem which may attain two or three feet in height in good soil, although in poor soil and mountain situations it may only attain six inches.  In the Larig Ghru, at 2,500 feet, I have found it with flowering stems only one or two inches high.

The tall stem carries the flowers well above the surrounding vegetation and so makes them more conspicuous.  It is clothed with shortly stalked leaves which are cut and divided like the radical leaves; the segments, however, are very narrow.  This is to keep down transpiraton by exposing as small a surface as possible to the hot summer sun and dry winds.

The flowers are arranged in loose panicles at the termination of long stalks.  They are large and of a bright yellow, the petals having a very glossy surface, and are surrounded by five hairy sepals which are of a yellowish green colour and are spreading.

The large colonies formed by this plant make the bright flowers very conspicuous and in early summer the meadows are transformed into a sea of gold which attracts insects from far and wide.

At the centre of the flower is a rounded mass of pistils around which are several rings of stamens.  At the base of each glossy petal is a tiny, golden cup in which nectar is secreted.  Insect visitors alight on the centre of the flower where they must leave imported pollen upon the carpels, and as they turn to suck the nectar from each tiny cup they become dusted with pollen from the myriad anthers, which they will transfer to the next flower visited.  Thus cross-pollination is achieved.  It must be obvious, however, that very often pollen from the stamens of a flower will fall upon its own pistils and self-fertilization will occur.  This, however, is not a disadvantage as a large number of pistils occur in each flower and the chances of all of them being self-fertilized is remote.

Honey-bees, bumble-bees, m;ining-bees, flies and hover-flies are attracted in large numbers to the beautiful blooms.

The whole plant is impregnated with a very acrid juice which is a great protection against herbivorous animals.  Cows will carefully at the grass all around the Buttercups, but leave them severely alone, thus giving the lie to the old idea that cows fed in buttercup meadows gave yellower butter than those fed in meadows where Buttercups were lacking.

The Creeping Buttercup (R. repens) is another plant which by its method of growth has made a great success in the struggle for existence.  It is very common in meadow lands where it form large colonies that prevent the growth of grass and by their creeping habit encroach continuously upon the surrounding herbage.

It forms rosettes of radical leaves which in dry situations may be close and compact, the leaves being small with short stalks.  In more favorable situations the leaves are on fairly long stalks, but they are always more densely arranged than in the Common Buttercup.

The leaves are composed of three stalked segments which are each divided into three dissected segments.  The stem leaves are few and often reduced to three lanceolate, entire lobes.

From the midst of the radical leaves long, creeping stems, called runners, push out into the surrounding herbage and whoever the nodes touch the soil they root and form fresh rosettes of leaves and thus new plants are formed which, in time, also send out runners.  Thus large colonies are formed which prohibit the growth of grass or other plants within their confines.  The leaves form large carpets in much the same way as in the alpine carpe plants that we have already studied.

The rosettes send up long flower stalks which are seldom more than one foot high and produce several flowers, much like those of the Common Buttercup.  The habit of forming colonies makes the flowers very conspicuous as the flowering stems of many rosettes are close together, thus giving a large number of blooms in a small area.

They are pollinated in the same way as the flowers of the Common Buttercup.

The Bulbous Buttercup (R. bulbous) is remarkable in that the base of the stem is enlarged to form a kind of bulb or rather a corm.  This Buttercup is the first to be found in flower.  This is explained by the fact that the corm is a storehouse of food and allows the plant to commence growth without waiting for its fibrous roots to commence active work.  Hence it gains a good start over allied species.

Its leaves are rather small, the radical ones being produced on fairly short, hairy stems and forming a close rosette.  They are divided into three fairly symmetrical segments.

The flowers, which are large, are produced on stalks about one foot high.  In this species the sepals hang downwards from the petals.  They are fertilized as in the foregoing species.

Globe Flower (Trollius europaea)

This beautiful plant is a fairly common one in the lower mountain pastures and moist meadow lands, especially in the western Highlands where large masses of these lovely yellow flowers are often to be encountered alongside streams and in damp, boggy places.

I first became acquainted with the Globe Flower at the entrance to Glencoe, where large colonies of these plants beautified the scarred, wet edges of the road. Since then I have found it in many places on the hillsides of Lochaber and Ardgour and have had ample chance to study its peculiar flowers.

The Globe Flower is a member of the Ranunculus Family and resembles the Buttercups in the form of its leaves.  The perennial rootstock is crowned by a rosette of radical leaves on long stalks.  The are lobed, very much like the leaves of the Common Buttercup, but are devoid of hairs as we should expect in a moisture-loving plant.  From the summit of the rootstock rises the simple flower stalk, which attains a height of about one to two feet, and possesses two or three small sessile leaves, in form much like those of the radical leaves.  The flower stalk is terminated by a single large yellow flower which is shaped like a globe, with no visible entrance into the interior.

We shall find that the bright yellow exterior is really formed by the sepals which, as in the case of the Marsh Marigold, are the conspicuous part of the flower and do the advertising.  These sepals, which may be from ten to fifteen or even more in number, overlap one another, and are curved in such a fashion that their tops meet in the centre to completely close the globe.  If we dissect away the walls of the globe, we shall find that they enclose a number of flat yellow objects which are the real petals.  They are equal in number to the sepals and actually function as honey-glands which secrete a large amount of that sweet substance.  These are followed by the many rows of stamens, whilst in the centre of the flower we find the several carpels which are quite free from one another.

Now one would be quite right to ask why a flower which has not entrance for bees and butterflies should secrete such an abundance of honey?

Well, let us go to a clump of these lovely flowers and watch the blooms closely.  If we do so, we shall see many tiny flies crawling over the sepals and disappointing between them into the centre of the flower, whilst others appear from the interior, from time to time, covered in pollen and fly away to other blooms.

These little flies are the pollen carriers and it is for them that the flower has so carefully concealed its treasure.  As they move around the inside of the flower they will leave pollen on the stigmas, thus causing cross-pollination.  Naturally, pollen from its own stamens will also be carried to the stigmas by the wanderers, but as long as a small amount of imported pollen is deposited on the stigmas, cross-fertilized seed will be set.

The closed bloom protects the nectarines from rain, which in the mountains is a great advantage.  Many insects, especially beetles, bit holes in the sepals and steal the nectar, thus upsetting the flower’s plan.

This, then, is yet another fashion by which cross-pollination is obtained, and it must leave us with a sense of wonder to see in what diverse ways plants have evolved, hand in hand with their particular insects visitors, and how assiduously they conceal their treasure for their particular benefactors.


The Highland meadows are the home of several interesting plants belonging to the Leguminous Family.

We have already described several members of this great family in the preceding chapter and some of them, like the Tufted Vetch and the Tuberous Bitter Vetch, may often be found in the meadowlands.

The leguminous plants to be here described are all very common plants and may be found over a wide area.  They are the Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus); the Lady’s Fingers (Anthyllis vulnerary); and two clovers, the Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) and the White Clover (Trifolium repens). 

The Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus conriculatus)

This plant is very common, very widely distributed and very variable. It may be found in meadows and pastures on waste land, in rocky places, on heaths and moorlands, and well up the mountain sides living under conditions of drought and poor soil or in well-manured and wet meadows.

It is a beautiful little plant in spite of its lowly habit and abundance.  Its racemes of bright yellow flowers vary from bright red through orange and deep yellow to a pale lemon colour, the changes of colour often being perceptible in the various racemes of the same plant.

The Scottish species are the common form Lotus corniculatus, Lotus crassifolius, a common form in dry, sunny regions and possessing more fleshy leaves than the common type, and Lotus major, often found in moist, rich meadows.

The Bird’s Foot Trefoil possesses a long, deep-striking tap-root, which attains the moister regions unaffected by the heat of summer sun or the cold of winter.  This root gives rise to several stems which usually creep along the surface of the ground where vegetation is sparse, or they may be erect in grassy regions.  In rich regions the stems become almost erect and tall, thus overtopping the more luxuriant herbage of these places.  The stems produce many pinnate leaves consisting of five ovate leaflets.  In the more luxuriant varieties, however, they become larger and thinner, while in those inhabiting dry, stony or sand places they become broad, glaucous, and often of a thick texture, this being a drought-resisting device.

The flowers are produced on long stalks, much longer than the leaves, and consist of dense umbels of bright yellow flowers.  They are very conspicuous and attract many of the smaller bees for whom the flowers are specially adapted. (see Broom, page 164)

After flowering the blooms wither and long straight pods follow them, which are arranged like the claws of a bird’s foot, and have given the plant its popular name.

The Lady’s Fingers (Anthyllis vulneraria)

This beautiful plant is quite common in low meadows among grasses, and is sometimes cultivated as a fodder plant.  Certain meadows as one approaches Loch-an-Eilean from Aviemore, are filled with this plant and the beautiful hay-like perfume is noticeable at a long distance upon the soft mountain breeze.  This perfume attracts the bees from far away to feat at its pale yellow blooms and transfer the vital pollen dust.

The Lady’s Fingers is a perennial plant and has a tufted rootstock which sends up semi-erect stems, which in luxuriant plants may attain one foot in height.  These stems are clothed with pinnate leaves.  The lower ones usually have a long terminal leaflet, the other leaflets being reduced to a small size.  The whole plant is covered with long silky hairs which, by controlling excess transpiration, fit this plant to inhabit dry pastures.  The flowers are produced in close umbels, two of these umbels being found close together at the termination of the stems, just above a leafy much-cut bract.  The flowers are usually of a pale yellow colour, but vary to bright yellow, and even deep red.  They are surrounded by a soft hairy calyx which persists after flowering to protect the seeds pods.


Before we leave the description of the Leguminous plants of the Scottish meadows, we must devote a short section to the two common clovers to be found there.

They are the Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), which is a very common plant in the meadows, on roadside banks, and in the lower pasturelands, and the White Clover (Trifolium repens), a very common meadowland plant.

The Red Clover possesses a perennial rootstock which, however, is not of long duration.  The roots are remarkable for the fact that, as with many members of the Pea Family, bacteria live in certain nodules upon them.  These bacteria are able to obtain nitrogen from the air contained in the soil and pass it on to the roots of the plant which in turn feed and lodge the bacteria.  For this reason clover is often grown in fields and then ploughed in, in order to enrich the soil.  This mutual help arrangement, know as symbiosis, is quite common in the plant world and we have already met with this phenomenon in the account of the Heaths (Chapter XIV).

The rootstock sends up rather weak which may be semi-erect or spreading.  They produce trifoliate leaves on long stalks, the leaflets being ovate and, like the stems, covered with hairs.  The stems are terminated by a dense head of purple-red flowers

The clover has aimed at conspicuousness in the same manner as the Composites by arranging its flowers into a close compact head.  This also means that one bee may fertilize many florets at one time instead of a single bloom, as would be the case if only one flower were produced.

Each flower has a small tubular calyx, surmounted by short teeth and covered with silky hairs.  The corolla possesses a long tube and is a miniature pea flower in form.

The flowers are constructed for pollination by bees.  The inset alights on the wing petals which adhere to the keel.  Its weight depresses the keel, forcing the stamens and pistol to protrude.  As the stigma projects beyond the anthers it touches the insect’s body first, thus receiving any pollen which it may have brought from another flower.  Thus cross-pollination is assured.  Other insect such as butterflies visit the flowers, but are rarely able to cross-pollinate them.

The White Clover also possesses a tap-root.  The stems are long and creeping and send out roots at the nodes.  Leaves are produced at each node and in time a single plant may colonize a large area.  Its lowly habit saves from destructive by sheep and cattle, and hence, in pastures, it often thrives exceedingly, the soil being concealed by its trifoliate leaves.

As in the Red Clover, the roots possess tubercles containing bacteria, and these aid the plant in obtaining nitrogen.

The trifoliate leaves are too well known to need description, and are remarkable for their powers of movement.  At night the two lateral leaflets move in towards each other until their two surfaces touch, and at the same time the upper leaflet bends downwards and covers the other two, so that they are protected from cold and dew.  In cold weather similar movements take place during the day.

The flowers are similar to those of the Red Clover, but are pure white or white tinged with pink.  They are pollinated in the same way as those of the Red Clover.


Several Composites are found in the meadows and pastures.  They are all very common plants in the lowlands, but several of them such as the Sneezewort (Achilla Ptarmica ), the Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and the Melancholy Thistle (Carduus heterophyllus) are found at considerable elevations. 

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Probably no flower in the world is know to so many people and loved by so few as the Dandelion.

This common plant, inured to every hardship, is to be found in every part of the world, whether in the rich cultivated fields and gardens of the lowlands, on dry sterile moorland and bleak hillsides, in wet places by streams and in boggy meadows, or high up on our mountain sides, competing with the Saxifrages and other alpine plants for existence.

Of all the numerous places in which I have found the Dandelion none was more romantic than that at 3,000 feet behind the jagged edge of Aonach Dugh, that forms a rugged rampart to wild Glencoe, and from which the eye sweeps back over miles of heather moors to the shining waters of the Blackwater Loch and to the great peaks of Ben Nevis and the Mamore Forest Mountains.  To the south one sees the fearsome precipices of Bidean Mor, clear cut in the sparkling air, and one can look down with awe into the deep chasm where lies peaceful Loch Etchachan, surrounded by great precipices, sheer drops of hundreds of feet to the boulders below.  Here amid such beautiful scenes and sublime surroundings, I found many clumps of our humble garden weed, the Dandelion.  Many times since, on finding the golden blooms in some corner of my garden, I have stopped to think of their many cousins starring the green turf in the beautiful spot high above the ‘Glen of Weeping’.

The Dandelion, by its tenacity, has spread across the Glove from Arctic to Antarctic in the wake of European colonists, and in spite of every means to arrest its growth, it has thrived so well as to be a pest in every country where it has been introduced.

If the Dandelion had been a rare plant, the beauty of its large yellow heads would have been praised alike by artist and gardener, but like many common things most of us pass it by without even giving it a thought.

But the Dandelion is well worth a very careful study.  For this plant, which has crossed the boundless oceans in its stride, climbed mountain chains and traversed whole continents in its world conquest, is adapted as few plants are for the struggle of existence.  We shall find much food for deep thought and careful reflection in the story that can be read by those who wish to read it.

In the Highlands this plant can be found almost everywhere, but naturally it attains its finest development in the meadows and pastures of the valleys and lower lands.

Why has the Dandelion been able to live and thrive under so many conditions of climate, of soil and of altitude?

In the first place, it possesses a very deep-striking tap-root which goes well down into the soil, where frost and cold cannot harm it, and where drought holds no terrors.  This tap-root is a reservoir of energy, which lies dormant in the soil throughout the winter, but with the return of milder weather it is at once ready to start into growth, using its stored energy until such time as the leaves and roots can co-operate to obtain food.  The root also contains a bitter juice which renders it very unsavory to grubs and animals, hence it is safe from their attacks.

In the second place, all the leaves of the Dandelion are radical and are arranged in a perfect rosette, each leaf being so placed with regard to the others that it obtains a maximum quantity of light.  At the same time the flatness of the rosettes results in the fact that the lower surfaces, with their vital stomata, are facing the soil, from which moisture is always arising and thus transpiration is reduced.  The rosette formation keeps competitors at a distance, as life is impossible beneath the shade of the spreading leaves.  They also present a large surface on which dew is condensed at night and this, running down the prominent mid-ribs, drips off near the centre of the rosette to moisten the soil around the tap-root.  The same is true of rain, which is also directed towards the centre of the rosette.  The closeness of the leaves to the soil also saves them from the force of the wind.  These leaves, like the roots, are very bitter and are left alone by animals, but man, however, sometimes uses them for salads, disguising the bitter flavour with salad creams and vinegars.

In the third place, the arrangement of the flowers is a potent reason for the abundance of this plant.

From the midst of the rosette of leaves arises a leafless flower stalk, which attains a height of about one foot.  It is a hollow tube, the architectural form the best able to withstand the force of the wind and to support the large flower head.

The stalk is crowned by a single golden head of flowers, which is often one and a half inches in diameter.  This head consists of an involucre of two or three rows of lanceolate bracts, the outer ones recurved to act as a barrier to crawling insects

The flower itself consists of many florets, all of which bear a strap-shaped golden petal. The floret consists of this strap-shaped petal united at the lower edges in the lower part to form a tube of about half an inch in length.  The tube is surrounded by a ring of silky hairs which are the rudiments of the sepals, whilst within, at its base, we find the nectarines.  The stamens are inserted on the tube and their anthers are united at the edges to form a closed cylinder which projects about half an inch from the floret tube.  The stigma is at first situated inside the ring of anthers, and hence cannot be seen when the floret first opens.

After opening the style commences to elongate and pushes its way through the anther ring.  At this time the stigma lobes are pressed closed together so that self-fertilization is impossible.  The style below the stigmas is hairy and as the anthers open inwards and gradual lengthening of these style causes the hairs to seep the pollen out of the anthers like a brush. When the stigmas are clear of the anthers they open and become receptive.  Each ring of florets opens in succession, commencing from the exterior.

An insect visiting the head for nectar or pollen will naturally fertilize many florets with transported pollen in one visit.  As the flowers remain open for a long time, they may be visited by many insects, and hence it is highly probable that all the florets will be cross-pollinated. As the floret tube is not deep and the nectar rises high in the tube, it is available to quite short-tongued insects and so attracts many visitors.  Flies of many species, hover-flies, short-tongued bees, beetles and butterflies all visit the flowers in great numbers.  Small wonder that a flower which presents its gifts so freely, and remain open for so long, should come first in popularity with the insect world and hence set a great quantity of cross-fertilized seed.

After flowering the head closes, the maturing seed being protected from damp by the involucres.  The airs elongate and with the withering of the corolla form a silky parachute above the seed.  When it is mature the head opens, the hairs spread out and the parachute opens to sail away and deposit the seed far from the parent plant.  Thus the Dandelion spreads its frontiers farther and farther, crossing seas, mountain chains and deserts in its stride.

Thus we see that the Dandelion owes its success in life not to any haphazard chance or a lucky succession of chances but simply to the fact that it is adapted in every fashion to make the best of life, and attracts as many insect visitors as possible so that plenty of strong cross-fertilized seed is set.

Small wonder it is common from pole to pole and up to the limit of vegetation on the mountain sides.

Long-rooted Cat’s Ear (Hypochaeris radicata

The meadows are the home of many Composites, which are of very common occurrence and are very widely distributed.  We have already described the Dandelion, and the present subject is in many ways very like it.

The Long-rooted Cat’s Ear is, as its name suggests, a very deep rooted plant with a tap-root of great length in which is stored nourishment for an early start as soon as the warmer days commence.  This long toot also taps the deep moisture-laden layers of the soil and the plants is thus able to withstand long periods of drought. 

In the spring the rootstock sends out many long, blunt, lanceolate leaves which are deeply indented with large, blunt teeth.  They form a very close rosette performing the same function as in the case of the Dandelion.  The leaves are covered on both surfaces with short, almost bristly hairs which protect the leaves against excess transpiration.

It commences life well adapted to combat adverse conditions and competitors.  No wonder that it is so common in dry pastures, on banks and in meadows.

From the midst of the radical leaves arise long robust flower stalks which are devoid of leaves, but possess several small scales which take their place.  They attain a height of two feet, and are usually once branched, although in luxuriant specimens they may branch several times and may send up eight to twelve main stems.

One may probably wonder why the Cat’s Ear has not economized by shortening its stem like the Dandelion, which in spite of its short simple stems has made such a success in the life struggle.  The reason is to be found in the flowering seasons.  The Dandelion flowers early in the year whilst the meadow herbage is snort and its stems are well able to clear the surrounding vegetation.  The Cat’s Ear, however, flowers in summer when the herbage is tall and if it possessed short stems in flowers would be hidden, so it has adopted long flower stalks which enable the flowers to bloom well above the surrounding grasses.

Each branch is terminated by a large bright yellow head of flowers.  It possesses an involucre of many bracts arranged in two or three rows and covered on the outer surface with several rows of hairs, white below but often black or dark brown above.  These bracts protect the flower against damp whilst in bud, and against crawling insects when in bloom.  The upper part of the flower stalk, immediately below the flower, is enlarged and hollow, probably to strengthen the stem in order to hold the large flower head erect.

The head itself is composed of a vast number of strap-shaped florets arranged as in the case of the Dandelion, and of a very similar construction, with the same method of fertilization, etc.

As the hone rises high in the floret tube it is accessible to quite short-tongued insects.  It is visited by a vast number, such as flies, hover-flies, bees, wasps and butterflies, all supping at its abundant table.

I watched a large drone-fly alight upon one of these flowers and pass its tongue quickly along the hairy styles, licking off the pollen and at the same time pollinating many florets. During the course of quite a short space of time many different species of insect visited the flower and all its mature florets must have been cross-pollinated in that time.

The flower heads close at night, and also in dull weather, thus protecting the pollen from rain and dew.  They flower for a considerable length of time, seven to ten days being quite common.

Thus when we examine even the commonest of plants, we find that they are arranged with an amazing nicety and ingenuity.  Every hair has a significance and the whole flower is arranged in complete harmony with its environment, its season of flowering and its insect visitors.  Even the most cynical must admit that in no other place in this world is the hand of the Creator more evident than in the domain of flowers.

After flowering the head closes and the petals wither away.  At the same time the fringe of hairs surrounding the floret tube lengthens and becomes brownish in colour.  The hairs are pinnate like a feather.  When the seed is mature the head opens again and the wind detaches the seeds and away they go for miles on the breeze before they descend to earth.  No wonder that the Cat’s Ear, like most members of the Composite Family, has conquered the whole of the Northern Hemisphere from the Pacific to the Atlantic.


Three members of the Cruciferous Family (Cruciferae) can be found in the Highland pastures.  One, the Hairy Rock Cress (Arabis hirsuta),  is to be found throughout the area and may climb to 3,000 feet.  It prefers drier pastures, especially those on limestone, but may also be found on dry, sandy pastures along the sea-shore.

The other two prefer damper places, especially in stony areas.  The Hairy Bitter Cress (Cardamine hirsuta) is quite a common plant and may be met with high up the mountain sides.  The Wavy Bitter Cress (C. flexuosa), a very similar plant, prefers shady, damp places, and for this reason may be looked for amid rock patches, on the sides of ditches and in the shade of small trees or shrubs.  It also is well distributed and has been found at high altitudes.

The Hairy Rock Cress is a biennial and if we cam across the plants in summer, we should find that some of them consisted solely of rosettes of leaves, whilst the others were in flower.  The former, which are young plants, will not flower till the following year, whilst the latter will die once the flowers have faded and the seeds have set.

The leaf rosettes are pressed close to the ground where the mouths of grazing animals cannot get at them.  They consist of several oblong leaves with a few teeth around the margin and a covering of short, stiff hairs.  If we dug up a plant, we should find that it possessed a longish tap-root which acted as a food store during the winter when the leaf rosettes were covered by snow.

In the following season they send up a tall, very stiff, erect, flowering stem which never branches.  It is clothed with small, hairy leaves, which stand erect upon the stem and clasp it by tiny auricles.  It is terminated by a raceme of small, white flowers, which are typically Cruciferous in structure and are pollinated as in the case of the Cuckoo Flower (see Chapter XVII).

The flowers are followed by erect pods about one and a half inches long, and these give the plant a very distinctive appearance.

The Hairy Bitter Cress is an annual and, in spite of its abundance, is quite an attractive little plant with its fresh, green, daintily-cut leaves, each segment of which is rounded and seated upon a tiny stalk.  They form a close rosette from the base of which fine roots push down into the soil, and it is remarkable how quickly the plant develops quite an extensive root system.

As soon as the leaves are well developed, a flower stalk (or in luxuriant specimens, many) is sent up.  A few leaves are formed upon it and they are terminated by a raceme of small white flowers.

The pods are about one inch and their two sides curl up elastically when dry and throw the seeds for some distance.  In dry situations the plants finish their life cycle in the course of two or three months, but in damp places they keep flowering throughout the summer, new flower stalks arising from axillary branches.

The Wavy Bitter Cress is a perennial, but usually behaves as it were a biennial.  It is very similar to the preceding, but the stems are flexuous and more leafy and it is larger in all its parts.  It may be distinguished by the fact that it has six stamens, whereas the former has only four.

The flowers of both species are pollinated as in the case of the Cuckoo Flower.  They are, however, often self-pollinated, as they are inconspicuous and the stigma stands at the same height as the anthers.


Cowslip (Primula veris)

The Cowslip is to be found in the lower pastures throughout the Highlands, although it is missing from some areas.  We have five Primulas in Britain, three of which are found in Highland Scotland.  Of these our present subject is perhaps the most beautiful, and it is a general favourite with all flower lovers.  The short, grassy pastures bedecked with Cow-slips, Orchids and other spring flowers are a delight to the eye and a pleasing reminder that winter, with its frost and snow, is well behind us.

Like the Primrose, it possesses a short, perennial, underground stock giving rise to a rosette of ovate leaves which contract abruptly towards the base, the lower portion consisting of a broad mid-rib bordered by a narrow, leafy margin.  They are green and wrinkled above, but the under-surface is covered with a minute, pale down.  The waxy covering, characteristic of the Primrose, is wanting in this species, which is also almost hairless.

Each plant sends up one or two tall erect, flower stalks which are terminated by an umbel of several flowers.  As in the case of the Primrose, some plants produce long-styled flowers, others short-styled flowers.

In the short-styled flowers, the corolla consists of a narrow tube about one inch in length, surmounted by a cup-shaped chamber in which the five sessile stamens are found.  The cup is bordered by five small deep golden yellow lobes, each of which has a deeper yellow mark at its base to act as a honey-guide to insect visitors.

The globular ovary is situated at the bottom of the corolla and is surrounded by a ring secreting nectar.  The pin-headed stigma, supported on a slender style only reaches half way up the tube.

In the long-styled flowers, the cup-shaped chamber is salver-shaped and twice as deep, the tube being correspondingly shorter, whilst the mark at the base of the lobes is almost orange.  The stamens are situated in the lower part of the salver, in a position corresponding to that of the stigma in the short-styled flowers.  The long style places the stigma at the entrance to the salver in a position corresponding to the stamens in the short-styled flowers.

The mechanism to ensure cross-pollination is thus the same as in the case of the Primrose, but the flowers are very sweetly perfumed and, by their umbellar arrangement, the bee can visit more flowers in a given times in the Primrose.

Scottish Primrose (P. scotica)

Few people know the far, northern shores of Scotland where , from the tops of the wild, lonely cliffs of Sutherland, one looks north over the white-capped Atlantic which breaks in clouds of spray far below. It is a strange feeling to know that between one and the Arctic ice there is nothing but that turbulent waste of water.  One feels that here, indeed, is the Ultima Thule of the ancients.  Here on this savage, yet strangely beautiful coast, one could really believe that one was at the end of the world and that beyond was nothing.  In winter when the fierce north-westerly gales are blowing that feeling must be enhanced a hundredfold.

The cliffs tops of this far-away land are covered in grassy pastures and here, if we are lucky, we may find one of the rarest and most isolated of British plants, the Scottish Primrose.  It is only to be found along the northern coast of Sutherland and Caithness, and again in the Orkneys.  It is believed to be a variety of the Bird’s-eye Primrose (P. farinosa), but that plant is found no farther north than the Pentland Hills.  The Scottish Rift Valley and the Highlands separate them, and it is impossible to say to what vagary of the Ice Age we owe this strange distribution.

It is a small but lovely plant, with a short, perennial rootstock, hidden deep down among the grass roots and covered in winter by their withered leaves and stems..  The leaves are produces in a close rosette and are remarkable for the thick, mealy texture of the under surface.  This is due to a waxy excretion which prevents water settling on the lower surface of the leaf and so blocking the stomata.  This is a necessary precaution for a plant growing in damp surroundings and with its leaves in close contact with the underlying soil and herbage.

About ten flowers are produced in an umbel at the summit of a short stalk, often only two inches high.  They are beautiful, deep purplish-blue in colour with a yellow centre, but are only about three-eighths of an inch across.  The flowers have the usual Primrose construction, but the entrance to the tube is glandular.

When the flowers open, the stamens are found attached by short filaments to the sides of the corolla-tube.  The pistil has a short style, but this elongates until it is at the same length as the stamens.  Bees visit the flowers, but in their exposed habitat they must often escape visitors.  This does not matter as the elongation of the style makes self-pollination possible.

The strange fact remains that P. farinose is dimorphic, in the same way as the Primrose and Cowslip, yet P. scotica has only one type of flower.  This variation has come about from the scarcity of insect visitors, which has made the flower much more dependent on self-pollination. For this same reason, the flowers are reduced in size and number.

Here we meet a fascinating example of isolation causing the evolution of a new species.  It is quite certain that this species has evolved from a community of P. farinose which may have been isolated during the Ice Age. As this community was out of all contact with any other similar one, it has bred away from the type.  It gradually lost its dimorphic condition until a point was reached where self-fertilization became the rule.  Any cross-pollination effected by bees would then only be between closely related individuals.  Continued inbreeding would result in the fixing of certain characters in the race, so that today P. scotica is already well removed from P. farinosa.


Three species of Milkwort are found in the Scottish pastures.  They are Polygala serpyllacea, a common plant in most pastures where there is no lime in the soil and often climbing the mountains to 3,000 feet; the Common Milkwort (P. vulgare), a more common plant in lower pastures; but as it requires lime in the soil it is absent wherever the soil is acid; the third species , P. dubium, is a common plant in dry, turfy pastures and on grassy sand-dunes, but confined to low levels.

They are all creeping, weak herbs which only attract our attention when they are in flower.  They are remarkable for their great variability and this is nowhere more apparent than in the colour of their flowers.  Bright red, blue and white bloomed plants may be found within a small area and the various colours are connected by all kinds of intermediate tints.

If we dug up a plant of the Common Milkwort, we should find that it had a short, almost woody rootstock from the summit of which arose several half erect or weak creeping stems which might attain one foot in length in long grass or in the moister areas.

The leaves are crowded towards the lower part of the stems and are here rounded in outline, farther along the stems they are alternate, more widely spaced and become lanceolate in form.  They are quite smooth, often with a glaucous appearance.

The small flowers are produced in fairly dense, terminal racemes and are remarkable for their peculiar structure.  If we examined a flower, we should see what at first appear to be two large oval petals surrounding the flower.  These tow structures, however, are sepals in spite of the fact that they are colored and veined with deeper hues.  We should also find three tiny green structures round the base of the flower.  These are sepals of the usual form.

If we carefully pulled the sepals away, we should see that the centre of the flower is occupied by a tubular structure which is open at the back and terminated by two oval, erect lobes.  The front of the tube is occupied by a strange horizontal structure from which project upwards many tiny finger-like processes.  The whole is very complex, being composed in part by petals and in part by the filaments of the eight stamens which are united as in the Pea family.

The anthers are found at the entrance of the tube, behind the frilled platform.  They are arranged on the summit of the tube in two groups of four each.  The two cells of each anther coalesce to form a single chamber and the anthers look like tiny pockets opening at the top.

The rounded ovary is terminated by a funnel-shaped style which has a spoon-like extremity, the stigma being situated on a little recurved lobe behind it.

The spoon-like tip is so placed that when the anthers open the pollen falls into it.  The flowers are visited b the bee, which pushes its proboscis down to the nectary at the base of the tube, but in so doing it touches the sticky stigma on which any transported pollen is left.  The proboscis becomes covered by the sticky substance and, on withdrawing, the pollen on the spoon-like extremity of the style adheres to it.

In spite of this elaborate contrivance to obtain cross-pollination, the flowers are often self-pollinated through the pollen running back along the spoon-like process and coming in contact with the stigma. 

The seeds are distributed by ants.  Each seed has a tiny tubercle containing soil and this has an attractive function for the ants, which carry off the seeds to their nests to feed their young and also to replenish their food stores.  Many seeds, however, are dropped en route and thus the Milkwort is distributed far and wide over the hillsides.

Polygala serphyllacea is a very similar plant, but may be distinguished by the fact that its stems are flexuous and the lower leaves are opposite.  P. dubium is believed by many authorities to b but a variety of P. vulgare.

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