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A Meadow in May.
The meadow I am about to describe is not by any means a typical one; indeed, I think, such are not to be met with in this part of the world. The grass in it is neither rich nor deep; it is not golden with cowslips or buttercups, nor shot over with "silver white" of lady-smocks, or even rosy with ragged robin, as any proper meadow ought to be this pleasant May-time, and yet it has something of all these and a little more beside. But first I will say something of the meadow and its surroundings, and afterwards of its flora. To begin with, it has no green hedgerows to divide it from its neighbours, but its enclosed on three sides by the low walls of the north country: grey stones loosely piled together, overgrown with mosses and lichens, and here and there interlaced with scrambling bushes of hawthorn and bird-cherry, these last-named trees being often barbarously half chopped through two or three feet above the ground, and their boughs laid so as to form a sort of hedge on the top of the wall. Our way down to the lake lies through the meadow, and over this low wall we climb, and follow the path which skirts the other boundary. This is formed by a stream fed from the bogs on the neighbouring fells, and shadowed by slender stems of ash and birch, with plenty of wild undergrowth about its rocky margin. The stream flows over a rough stony bed, but has its quiet shallows where hornwort and river-moss float sleepily, and over which the fishes dart. Anemones and celandine still linger about its banks in company with the flowers of the later spring-time. After skirting another tiny meadow, the stream passes under the high road, and soon joins the larger Borrowdale Beck before the latter empties itself into the Derwentwater. Just overhanging the meadow on the right, and rising somewhat abruptly from the opposite bank of the stream, are the grey and almost perpendicular heights of Grange Fell, on which beds of screes and patches of brown turf alternate with the graceful birches that climb up wherever the scanty soil affords a foothold for their roots. On the left is the long ridge of Catbells and Maiden Moor, rugged and bare, flanking the western entrance of Borrowdale; while opposite, but farther removed, Skiddaw looks down upon the lake and its wooded islands, and none the less upon our little meadow. One might almost describe it as a meadow run wild, for it has only a little bit of meadow proper, then a bit of marsh, then a bit of copse, and last of all a bit of mountain beck, with its margin of mossy rocks and stones, with ferns uncurling their fronds amongst the flowers. Of course, each part of the meadow has its appropriate flora, but it doesn't look a very promising place for hay. If you just leave it for a moment you may find parsley fern growing as plentifully on the hillside as the lastreas do in Devonshire. One recognizes here the appropriateness of its other name of rock-brakes, for there is scarcely a rock or stone that is not set or fringed with the bright green of its newly-expanded fronds. We have oak-fern and beech poly-pody as well, but the parsley reigns supreme and is scarcely less beautiful than the oak.
But what of the meadow flowers? First and most conspicuous, the "May-flower" par excellence is the marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), its yellow cups and dark glossy leaves contrasting so pleasantly. The wild marsh marigold "that shines like flame in swamps and hollows gray." It belongs to the Ranunculus family, diminutive of rana, a frog--in fact, the order of little frogs--a rather good name for a family many of whose members delight in the marshy places that are the favoured habitations of the croaking tribe! In Caltha palustris the cup (calthe) is really the cup (oilyx), and is not formed of the petals of the corolla as one might suppose at first sight, for these last are wanting. This is not so with the lesser spearwort (R. flamnula), another denizen of the wet parts of the meadow, for it has the proper number of sepals and petals (five), with slender lanceolate or spear-shaped leaves to which it owes its familiar English name. The pretty goldilocks (R. auricornus) is flowering under the trees, but the globe flower (Trollis Europaeus) is not in the meadow, though I gathered it a week ago at Windermere, where it grows very abundantly. It is a striking flower when one meets with it in a wild state, and seems as much at home in the meadow as the copse. Along with the marsh marigolds of course we have the cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) which, as old Gerarde says, "doth flower in April and Maie when the cuckoo doth begin to sing her pleasant notes without stammering." Its name of lady smocks is said to have been derived "from the resemblance of its white flowers to little smocks hung out to dry, as they used to be once a year at this season especially," a conclusion that would suggest a happy infrequency of "washing-days" amongst our ancestors. Cardamine pratensis belongs to that division of cruciferous plants with the pods much longer than they are broad, such as the cresses, wallflowers, etc.
The dog violet (V. canina) abounds in the Lake country, and its deep blue flowers may be seen peeping out through the grass by our meadow stream, in company with those of the more delicate march violet (V. palustris). This last is a charming little plant; it grows so compactly, and its leaves are so finely crenate. The flowers are smaller and paler than the "dogs"; indeed they are almost grey with dark purple streaks or honey-guides, as Sir John Lubbock will have it. There are very few hairs on the side petals, in which particular it differs from V. canina, as well as in its short blunt spur. The marsh violet grows in merely damp places, and is not confined to the bogs; but as our meadow also grows butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaria), that true bog-flower, it may well suit Viola palustris. The butterwort is not yet in blossom, but I can see its little violet flower snugly tucked under the central leaf which arches over it like a sort of pent-house, and its calyx all covered with hairs, each bearing a gland on its tip. The yellow-green leaves have the margins incurved, and grow in rosette-like form very closely pressed to the ground, having that peculiar greasy appearance to which the plant owes its name. Looking at them with a lens, one sees the pellucid nature of the superficial cells which gives the leaves their semi-transparent character, and also the little oil glands that stud the surface. Along with butterwort is the red rattle (Pedicularis sylvatica), a parasitic plant like the Bartsias, and less stout in appearance than P. palustris. The upper lip of the corolla has two teeth, one on each side below the tip, and between these the point of the long style curves downwards quite out of the possibility of self-fertilization, the four stamens with their prettily fringed filaments, being closely packed up under the over-arching lip. The stamens appear to dehisce by slits, something like those of the Heath tribe.
[Dehisce: to split open along a natural line]
The bog-bean (Menyanthis trifoliata) makes little silvery islands in another swampy meadow not far from ours, and is worth wetting one's feet to gather. It belongs to the Gentian family, and is the only member of it, I think, with the exception of Limnanthemum, that affects watery places. Its nurseries of white flowers and purple buds are borne aloft on a stout succulent stem or scape, and the trifoliate leaves somewhat resemble those of the bean in texture. The five lobes of the tubular corolla are bent backwards, and most beautifully bearded or fringed with long white filaments. Several of the Gentians have the throat of the corolla fringed, and very pretty they look, but the bog-bean is not content with such a simple adornment. I have often wondered at, as well as admired, the exquisite petals of this flower; perhaps someone can tell me the use of all the silken bravery they put on. The five purple stamens are set on the corolla-tube, and the capsule is one-celled, though the pistil has a three-lobed stigma. [Joseph] Hooker says it is two-lobed, but my specimens appear to me to have three lobes. However, I am sure to come to grief if I dissent from the great Hooker!
The Valeriana dioica is another denizen of the meadow, and, though not rare, is a new plant to me. Both kinds of flowers grow together, but the female are much smaller and more crowded than the male. There are several representatives of the Rosacea growing in the meadow besides the pretty Fragaria vesca. The prettiest, I think, is the water avens (Geum rivale), the same genus as Herb Bennet. The receptacle of Geum differs from that of Fragaria vesca in being dry, whereas the latter is succulent, and the long styles of the achenes are very hairy. Another member of the same family (Rosacea) is lady's mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris), with crowded cymes of inconspicuous yellowish-green flowers, which, like many outwardly uninteresting-looking things, well repays one's endeavours after a closer acquaintance. Then reniform leaves, too, are really pretty, and to the delicate plaiting of their lobes I think it must owe its English name. The flower itself is a square-looking little thing. It has no petals, but the calyx, with its bracts alternating with the four lobes, appears to do double duty and makes up for the want of a corolla. Then there is a fleshy disk almost filling up the mouth of the calyx, but with a little round hole in the centre through which the pistil protrudes, bearing on its summit a small globular stigma. At each corner, if I may so speak, of the disk, and just opposite the bracts, is a stamen with a jointed filament which causes the anthers to bend towards the stigma and apparently to shed their pollen upon it. The round hole in the disk appears to be lined with hairs, and in the older flowers the ovary, or rather achene, is seen quite filling it up, but here are no flowers sufficiently advanced for me to trace the final stages of development.
The hawthorn is as yet only in bud, and will have to make haste if it is to deserve the name of May this year. Along the stream side there are large bushes of bird-cherry (Prunus pudus), a three that is most abundant in the Lake country, and is almost as lovely as its relative the hawthorn. It has long elegant racemes of sweet-scented white blossoms, which are curiously ragged at the edges (erose). The calyx lobes are fringed and the leaves very finely serrated. I have not seen the drupe, but I believe it is small and very bitter. I wonder if the birds like their cherry.
At the end of April and beginning of May the meadows about the lake at Windermere were full of daffodils, but now they are all over. Their beauty has been immortalized by Wordsworth in his exquisite little poem called "Daffodils," familiar to us all. Certainly the May-flowers or flower of May, are very different in different parts of the country; but I think even in Staffordshire good Izaak Walton could scarcely have found all the flowers growing together that he so charmingly enumerates in the lines from the "Compleat Angler" with which I will close, only wishing I could ramble in such meadows.
"So I the fields and meadows green may view,
Proofread by LNL, June 2020
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