Journal of botany, British and foreign/Volume 9/The botanical history of Angus

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Journal of botany, British and foreign, Volume 9
The botanical history of Angus

by Robert Brown
Brown's first botanical paper, read to the Edinburgh Natural History Society in January 1792, but not published in print in Brown's lifetime.

Original articles.


(A Paper read before the Edinburgh Natural History Society on 26th January, 1792.)

[This paper, which has never been printed, is of considerable value in itself, and will be read with the interest which always attaches to the early efforts of great men. Robert Brown was born on December 21st, 1773, so that he was but a little over eighteen when he read this essay. It is probable that it was his first contribution to botanical science, and that it is the paper alluded to in the obituary notice in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (unhappily the only life we possess of the greatest of modern botanists), an addition to Lightfoot's 'Flora Scotica,' read in 1791. The excursion in Angus, which "did not exceed a fortnight," must have been made in that or a previous year. At this period Dr. Withering's 'Botanical Arrangement'—the second, and perhaps best, edition of which was completed in 1787 (except the 'Cryptogams,' which appeared in 1792)—was altogether the foremost text-book on British botany, and young Brown must be considered fortunate in having, soon after reading this paper, become a correspondent of the careful and excellent author. In the third edition (1796) we find the assistance of "Mr. Brown, surgeon, Edinburgh," acknowledged in the preface; and in the body of the book are a good many Scotch localities contributed by him, some being the same as those in this paper. We have been careful to print the communication just as it exists in the MS. volume of the Transactions of the Natural History Society, where it was found by Mr. Carruthers in August last.]

Mr. President,—In the following pages I do not pretend to give a full account of the vegetable productions of the county of Angus; but what I propose is only to enumerate some of its rarest plants, which I either met with myself or with regard to which I received credible information.

Before, however, entering upon this subject, it may not be improper briefly to point out the boundaries of this county and its relative situation with respect to other parts of Scotland. Angusshire, therefore, is bounded on the south by the Frith of Tay, which divides it from the county of Fife; on the east by the German Ocean; on the north it is separated from the county of Mearns by the river North Esk, and on the west it is bounded by part of Perthshire and of the Grampian Mountains, many of which it includes. To have minutely examined this tract of country, no less extensive than diversified in external appearance, would have required a length of time far greater than what I had to bestow on such an investigation; and when it is considered that the time I remained in that country did not exceed a fortnight, it will perhaps be thought presuming to attempt even a sketch of its botanical history. Conscious, therefore, of the numerous defects necessarily arising from this circumstance, I have not here proposed giving a full catalogue of its vegetable productions. Confining myself, as was before remarked, to those rarer plants only, which I can, either from an actual examination or authority in most cases unquestionable, safely mention as natives of Angus.

Before, however, we enter upon the investigation of the particular objects here to be treated of, it may not be amiss to observe that in different parts of this, as well as of every other country, even in situations almost perfectly similar, the plants produced are by no means the same; nor do we find that those which are common in one part of this kingdom are equally so in another. It may not be improper to illustrate this by a few examples relative to the present case. Hypericum pulchrum is far from being frequent in this neighbourhood, but it grows in most parts of Angus in the greatest profusion. Single specimens of the Fucus esculentus or F. pinnatifidus can hardly be met with on the seashores of this part of the kingdom. Both these plants, however, are so plentiful in the county alluded to, that the collecting and selling of them, especially of the former, afford even an almost constant employment for a particular class of the poorer sort of people.

Before prosecuting my subject I have only further to remark, that besides merely mentioning the plants as they occur, I shall, when it appears requisite, make a few observations on those whose Linnæan names do not yet seem sufficiently determined; not that in such cases I can pretend altogether to clear up the ambiguity, but principally with a view to the remarks of the ingenious members of this Society. I shall likewise add a few observations on such plants as are inserted in the 'Flora Scotica,' either from dubious authority or where no particular place of growth is mentioned.

I shall now proceed, therefore, to the enumeration proposed, taking the plants as they stand in the Linnæan system; beginning with the Utricularia minor, which grows plentifully in pools of stagnant water near Forfar. In other parts of Scotland this plant is very rarely to be met with; the only place mentioned in the 'Flora Seotica' is some peat pits near Kirkmichael in Dumfriesshire.

Schœnus Mariscus, which is not mentioned in the 'Flora Scotica,' grows in marshy ground north-east from Forfar. The spot in which it grows was formerly a small loch, which has lately been drained for the sake of its marle, and since that period the plant has never been observed in flower, but is in a very weak state.

Scirpus sylvaticus is likewise to be met with in this country in ground which is overflowed in the winter betwixt Brechin and Montrose.

Eriophorum alpinum, a plant hitherto unknown as a native of Britain, I observed near the same place with the Schœnus Mariscus. Within a mile of this place I likewise observed a species of Agrostis, which appeared considerably different from any of those commonly described as of British growth. It was then late in the season, and I did not find more than one specimen in flower. Afterwards, on comparing it with some grasses lately sent to the Botanic Garden here by Mr. Curtis, I found it exactly corresponding to his Agrostis tenuifolia. As, before I could do this, it was necessarily much later in the season, the plants were not in flower; but by the shape of the leaves from which the specific name tenuifolia has very aptly been taken, I could easily see the plants were perfectly similar. But till Mr. Curtis's plants flower, nothing can be said with certainty on the subject. At present I shall only add that, as I am very little acquainted with the 'Flora Londinensis,' I am not certain whether or not Mr. Curtis has as yet published any observations on this species.

Bromus secalinus grows in some cornfields several miles south from Forfar. In the 'Appendix to the Flora Scotica' it was mentioned to grow in similar situations behind the Botanic Garden, but I hardly think it will be found there now.

Scabiosa Columbaria was inserted in the 'Flora Scotica' on the authority of Sibbald, but no place of growth mentioned. It has been observed within a mile of Arbroath, in dry pastures.

Galium erectum, of Hudson, I was informed, had been found near Brechin, but the information cannot be altogether depended upon, as I saw no specimens. I thought, however, as it is not mentioned by Mr. Lightfoot, that this information was worthy of notice.

Lysimachia thyrsiflora grows in marshy ground beside the Schœnus Mariscus, and likewise in a similar situation betwixt Montrose and Brechin. This plant was not found by Mr. Lightfoot, nor has it, I believe, been observed by later travellers in North Britain.

Eryngium maritimum, or Sea Holly, grows plentifully on the sandy beach near Montrose, and in many other like situations on the coast.

Ligusticum scoticum was likewise observed, though very sparingly, on the coast betwixt Montrose and Arbroath.

Sium angustifolium I observed in ditches about Forfar. I do not mention this plant altogether on account of its scarcity, but because it has given rise to a mistake in the 'Flora Scotica.' This species itself is inserted in that work, and a description added which is very characteristic. But, on the authority of Mr. Yalden, the S. latifolium is mentioned in the appendix as a native of Scotland, and the only place of growth assigned is the King's Park. That the plant here called S. latifolium is nothing else than the real S. angustifolium there can be little doubt, for Mr. Yalden, in a catalogue which he has given of the plants in the King's Park, and which is published in the end of Mr. Lightfoot's work, mentions the S. latifolium, although it is well known that the S. angustifolium grows plentifully in that place, and, as far as I have observed, no other species of this genus.

Cicuta virosa is very plentiful in the ditches about Forfar, and in other parts of the country; but, although it is thus frequent, I never yet heard of its having been the cause of any fatal accident, although one of the most virulent poisons of the vegetable kingdom. In other parts of Britain it is providentially very scarce.

Linum Radiolum I likewise observed in wet ground in several parts of the country.

Drosera rotundifolia is a plant not unfrequently to be met with on marshy ground. According to Mr. Lightfoot, the longifolia is equally common in Scotland, but this is far from being really the case. It has of late been asserted that the leaves of the Drosera have the power, when a small body is applied to their upper surface, of contracting and enclosing the substance so applied, by this means in many cases proving a trap to those insects which happen to light upon them. The examination of this curious fact is certainly well worth the attention of the naturalist. In the second edition of Withering's 'Botanical Arrangement,' it is alleged that this phenomenon was observed immediately to follow the application of the substance. But it appears from works of a late German author that several hours generally elapsed before the leaf was completely folded together. The same author observes that when an insect is placed upon a leaf it naturally endeavours to escape, but is prevented by the viscid juice which is secreted by the long hairs on its upper surface. In a short time these hairs begin to be bent inwards, and gradually clasp the insect, which about this time is found dead, not so much in all probability from the pressure of the hairs, which cannot be great, but rather from the nature of the fluid which they exude. After the hairs have thus enclosed the animal the leaf itself begins to contract, and by very slow degrees at last covers its prey. Although I by no means pretend to deny the fact alleged by Dr. Withering, which was related from the actual experiment, yet I am rather inclined to give more credit to the German author's experiments. In a few trials which I made myself no contraction followed after a very considerable time, nor did I at all observe it. But it must be owned that as these were made with a pin instead of an insect, I cannot pretend to contradict the fact, but rather to blame the mode in which the trials were made. For it is well known to every one who has seen this plant in the growing state that many of its leaves are generally folded, and if these are opened there is always found some substance enclosed. If, therefore, the Drosera is endowed with such a power (and there is the strongest reason to believe it is), we will have some difficulty in accounting for it on principles merely mechanical. I now proceed with my enumeration.

Juncus articulatus, viviparus, I observed growing plentifully in wet ground near Forfar. In one case I saw the viviparous germen taking root, and in several instances these viviparous plants flowered when one half inch in height.

Arbutus Uva-ursi and Epilobium alpinum. Both grow on many of the Grampian Mountains.

Dianthus deltoides I likewise observed in several parts of Angus, and in one found a variety of it with a stem not divided as is generally the case, but simple, and supporting only one flower. Is it not probable that this or some other variety of the same species is the plant mentioned by Sibbald as growing on a hill near Perth, and inserted in the 'Flora Scotica' under the name of Dianthus arenarius? To satisfy myself concerning this I examined a hill in the vicinity of Perth (whether the same as that meant by Sibbald I am uncertain), and actually found the Dianthus deltoides and a variety with a white flower. I apprehend, therefore, that the Dianthus arenarius should be excluded from the ' Flora Scotica.'

Silene amœna, as it has commonly been called by the botanical writers of this island, grows plentifully along the coast. It is, however, very different from the plant so named by Linnæus, as evidently appears from comparing it with the specific character and short description which that author has given of his plant. It seems upon the whole very surprising that this name should have been applied to a plant so totally different in respect of characteristic distinctions, and almost impossible to assign any reason for such a conduct which has been almost universally adopted in this country. It should, however, appear by the 'Hortus Kewensis' that this plant is nothing else than the variety of the Cucubalus Belieu, which grows on the seacoast, mentioned by the older botanical authors. But that it is more than a variety seems to me perfectly evident, as I have seen the plant cultivated without any alteration being produced. It even belongs to a different genus. But this will serve to show in a manner how artificial and with what impropriety the Silene and Cucubalus are separated, for in a strict propriety they only constitute along with the Lychnis one genus. But setting aside this last, it is evident that the two former might easily be joined without the least violence to the Linnæn system.

The Cucubalus viscosus was said to have been found on the coast near Montrose, but I suspect the Silene nutans has been mistaken for it, as is now found to have been the case in England. The S. nutans has, I believe, never been found in Scotland, at least it is not mentioned in the 'Flora Scotica.'

A species of Arenaria was observed on the Castlehill of Forfar, by Mr. Lightfoot, and by him thought to be the A. laricifolia of Linnæus. But from the figures referred to in the 'Flora Scotica,' it seems quite a different plant; but whatever it might have been, it is perhaps now lost to Scotland, as the greater part of the place on which it was said to grow has of late been cultivated, and the little that remains in its natural state I examined carefully, but without finding this or any such plant.

Sedum Telephium has been observed in some cornfields in the northern parts of this county.

Sedum anglicum, of Hudson, I observed on rocks near Dundee. It may not here be improper to remark, that there is at least some room to suppose this plant the S. annuum of Linnæus, as both authors refer to the same figure, viz. that given by Dillenius in Ray's 'Synopsis.' I should have been more confident in my assertion had I not observed that both plants are mentioned as growing in Kew Gardens. But I am even still inclined to think that some mistake has crept into the work in which this is to be seen, or if the plants are really distinct, it is evident that the synonyma have been misapplied.

Spergula saginoides grows in sandy ground near Forfar. This plant was called S. laricina, by Hudson and Lightfoot, and observed by the latter in the isle of Bute. It agrees perfectly well with the specific character either of the one or other of these plants.

Spiræa Filipendula grows on rocky ground near Dundee.

Turritis hirsuta is likeways to be found on several of the lower hills of Angusshire. I was likeways informed, from good authority, that the T. glabra had been found a few miles west from Montrose. This plant has never yet been found in Scotland, and is even very rare in England.

The variety of Erodium cicutarium, with a white flower, grows not uncommon on the seacoast. Perhaps it may be more than a variety, at least if it is only so, the differences are permanent and unalterable by cultivation. Although most authors have supposed these to arise from the influence of the sea. But as I have observed them unchangeable by culture I cannot accede to this opinion. Besides, I have frequently had occasion to see plants of this and of the common E. cicularium growing side by side; and we may add to this, that the former is known to grow in the King's Park, a place which we may safely suppose to be altogether removed from the influence of the sea, and it may likewise be observed that in the place now mentioned the E. cicularium does not grow. Upon the whole, this plant has certanly equal pretensions to a separate specific character from the E. cicularium, as the E. pimpinellifolium of Mr. Curtis and others.

Orobus sylvaticus has been observed in some shady woods near Airly Castle.

Astragalus glycyphylllus I observed on the coast betwixt Montrose and Arbroath. A species of this genus which Hudson, and after him Mr. Lightfoot, have taken for the A. arenarius, of Linnæus, grows plentifully along the whole coast. It is now found to be widely different from that plant, but what its proper name should be seems not yet fully determined. Retzius, in his 'Observationes Botanicæ,' remarks that it is very nearly allied to the Astragalus danicus, but yet seems different. In the second edition of 'Withering's Botanical Arrangement,' this name is given it, but with some impropriety, as Retzius's plant is annual, while the plant found in this country is perennial. In the 'Hortus Kewensis' it has been called Astragalus hypoglottis, but it does by no means altogether correspond with the specific character which Linnæus has given to that species. Considering this diversity of opinion, I should be led to imagine that this plant is as yet undescribed, or if at all described, it is certainly but ill characterized, or distinguished from those to which it is most nearly allied. For it is certain that it very well expresses the specific characters of several species of Astragalus.

Trifolium medium grows by the sides of hedges in several parts of Angus. Concerning this plant likeways there has been a considerable diversity of opinion. In the first edition of the 'Flora Anglica' it is called the Trifolium medium, the name which it should still retain. In the second edition of the same work, and in the 'Flora Scotica' it has, however, been named Trifolium alpestre. Jacquin, in his 'Flora Austriaca,' has made it a new species, giving it the name of Trifolium flexuosum, which is adopted in the second edition of 'Withering's Botanical Arrangement.' But in a paper wrote by Afzelius, and published in the "Transactions of the Linnean Society," it is proved that the plant in question is nothing else than the Trifolium medium of Linnaeus.

Hyoseris minima grows in several cornfields about Forfar. It was inserted in the 'Flora Scotica' on Sibbald's authority, but no place of growth mentioned.

I observed likeways a variety of the Carduus Marianus, with leaves altogether green, about a mile from Dundee.

Solidago cambrica was observed in the western parts of Angus. According to Lightfoot, it is only a variety of Virga-aurea, produced by the particular soil in which it grows. But since that period cultivation has ascertained them specifically distinct.

Doronicum Pardalianches grows in shady ground several miles west from Montrose. This plant has never yet been found in England, but was observed in Scotland by Mr. Lightfoot in some parts of Annandale; as he always found it near buildings, however, he concludes that it has probably escaped from gardens. But in the place which I now mention this could not possibly have happened; and I likeways met with it in Perthshire, in a situation which confirms me in this opinion; and besides, it may be remarked, that it is a plant very rarely, if ever, to be found in gardens, at least in this age. I would, therefore, upon the whole, suppose this plant to be an original native of this country; though it may be found in situations which may lead to the opinion of its having escaped from gardens.

Anthemis tinctoria was a few years ago observed in some cornfields about Forfar, but cannot now be found. It is not at all mentioned by Lightfoot, and is very scarce in England, nor is it in all probability an original native of this country, but has perhaps been imported with grain.

Sparganium natansgrows in pools of stagnant water a mile east from Forfar. According to Hudson, it is a variety of his Sparganium simplex, but there can be little doubt that they are perfectly distinct species.

Carex limosa likeways grows near the same place. It is said in the 'Flora Scotica' to grow near Crief; but the figure referred to by Mr. Lightfoot evidently represents the Curex panicen, as has already been observed in the 'Botanical Arrangement.'

Salix arenaria, of Lightfoot, I observed plentifully in loose sandy ground near Montrose. It is, however, perfectly distinct from the plant so called by Linnæus, as appears from comparing it with that author's description. The S. arenaria, of Linnæus, is about the height of a man, but this plant is only about 10 inches in length and lies close to the ground. As we know the vast changes produced by a diversity of soil on this genus of plants, which have never yet been systematically arranged, I am not altogether certain whether this plant may not be a variety of the S. repens, but I am rather inclined to believe them specifically distinct.

I was informed that the Equisetum hyemale grows in the western part of Angus. It is inserted in the 'Flora Scotica,' but no place of growth mentioned.

Pilularia globulifera I observed in ground that is overflowed in the winter, near Belmont. It is likeways inserted by Mr. Lightfoot; but neither authority given nor place of growth mentioned.

With these remarks I beg leave to conclude my paper, which, it must be owned, in very few parts admits of discussion; on this account I should certainly not have presumed to lay it before the Society, had I not thought that the narration of facts of such especially as tend to illustrate in any degree the natural history of the country which we inhabit, was perfectly consonant with the views of this institution.

[The "authority," several times mentioned in the above essay, is doubtless George Don the elder. It is probable that he was Robert Brown's companion in some of his excursions. In Headrick's 'General View of the Agriculture of Angus' (1813), Don published an "account of the native plants" of the country; Galium erectum and Turritis glabra (see above) are both included in this list, and he there (p. 20) claims the discovery of Eriophorum alpinum, in 1791, for himself, adding that it was "the first and only time it has been found in Great Britain; he also mentions that Schœnus Mariscus formerly grew there, but does not mention Lysimachia thyrsiflora, which Brown collected with the others. This may perhaps indicate that the two botanists independently found species in the same year. In the British Museum Herbarium, however, are specimens of the Eriophorum with a ticket in Brown's hand, running thus, "Shell Marle Moss of Restenet, a mile east of Forfar, July, 1793.... R.Brown in company with George Don." This does not tally with Don's remark about "the first and only time;" and it is possible that the species was really collected by Brown and Don in company, in 1791, the date "1793" on Brown's ticket being an accident, due perhaps to having been written long after the date, as the writing ieems to indicate.—H. T.]