The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Periwinkle, Vinca Major.
A Lesson for Young People, by E. H. Ussher.
It is very wonderful how, in a matted tangle of Periwinkle growth, each leaf manages to air its broad surface in the light. The dense mass of foliage strikes one's eye as a mosaic work of neatly fitted pieces. Study one of the outlying sprays which has had plenty of room from the first--the leaves grow opposite each other in couples and these couples cross in opposite directions; so that when you look down on the spray from above, you get the impression of a green star of leaves. Now step back and survey the tangle from a distance. You do not see the stars--only a piece of patchwork. If, in the thick of the tangle, the starry arrangement were to prevail which you saw on the outskirts, only to topmost leaf couples could enjoy the light, and even they would be crossed and hindered by their neighbours. look at the stiff, woody stems: their contortions will show you how an apparent impossibility is managed. Other plants play other tricks--sometimes it is the leaf stalks which twist, or turn away from the leaves they carry, or make giant strides towards bright corners. As to the less Periwinkle, no gymnastic seems too hard for it--the very leaves turn point downwards, point upwards, turn out, turn in--there is no guessing sometimes how they have come to be where they are. Very often, instead of couples, you find four leaves growing together--the stem has been left out which ought to separate them--and now and then, one of the four turns out a pessimist, he thinks his chances too few and leaves them to the three others who thenceforward flourish without him. Sometimes three are pessimists and then a single leaf is left growing lone and lorn. A star of four leaves occurs very frequently where a year's growth ends, and afterwards the spray seems to hesitate about putting out fresh leaves of the full length. The five blue or white flags of the Periwinkle, big and angular, show up grandly on the withered brown carpet of woods in early spring. The faded grass of last year remains amongst the more exposed undergrowth which props the Periwinkle runners. Where there is no support they cling to the ground--rising at the tips to flower or anchoring themselves more firmly yet by buds which send out roots. The German botanist, Kerner, points out that it cannot always be the weight of leaves which causes runners to cling to the ground. He says that if you put the creeping stems of Mouse-eared Hawkweed into water, they will end by holding up their heads and looking you in the face. And he has noticed the runners of other plants in an overhanging position: they had turned up at the tips, which they would not have done if their leaves had overweighted them. How would our Periwinkle behave on--say--the edge of a rock?
There is another puzzling thing about stems. Sometimes, where you would expect to find them stout--because old and fibrous--you find them thinner--more wiry--than the younger shoots. This especially noticeable in the little Periwinkle. Perhaps it is because the younger stems are swollen with juices which dry up later on.
Now let us dive into the flower of a big single Periwinkle after a quick look at the outside. First of all, five slim hair-fringed (cup) leaves joined below--a real cup; and secondly, five great purple or white (crown) leaves likewise joined and very like a real crown, as may be seen by splitting the tube open and flattening it out. If you are clumsy you will tear the flower all to bits in doing this. The right way is to cut the green (cup) leaves with a slender pair of scissors, noticing, on your way, how the crown surrounds the seed vessel and becomes very angular at the point where it breaks into the five, often lopsided, divisions. Now cut the crown from top to bottom into two long halves and pluck them off the stalk head. Mind lest you take the dust shoot off with them, for it is mixed up with the dust threads and caught by entangled hairs. Some are on the crown, some are on the dust threads, whose bags lean over the dust shoot, and some--a white tuft of them--are on the latter itself. It is a lovely lemon colour, except just underneath the white tuft and there it is pale green. The dust threads start out of the crown, each on a bent knee, and each with a comb of bristles on its head--a sort of Red Indian gear. Now for a look at the seed vessel--get it as old and ripe as you can. It will take you by surprise, for it is made of two leaves folded along their edges--quite free and independent of each other. (Aconite seed vessels fold the same way.) You know how cup and crown and even the dust bags are all leaves shaped and coloured in different ways for different purposes. Now it must be clear to you that even the see vessel is built up of leaves--separate in this instance--but joined to each other in most flowers so as to form a cavity for holding the seeds. In the case of the Periwinkle it is not only the shape of the seed vessel which betrays a relationship to the green leaves of the stem. If you look at the place with a magnifying glass where the latter join their leaf stalks, you will find a couple of swellings called glands. You can see similar glands with the naked eye at the point where the green cup leaves join, and easier still between the seed vessel leaves. All have these glands in common. Very often one of the seed vessel leaves shrivels away or is much shorter than the other. The seeds grow along the folded edges of each leaf and above projects the dust shoot. It is dragged off when the crown falls, and is brittle at all times--perhaps least so when young; it is best to choose one of the twisted ends if you want to split a flower open and have another look at the ingenious contrivances inside it. Did you notice in the full-blown flower how the hairs on the crown waylay the dust so that it dribbles down from them, as well as from the bags, on to the dust shoot? It is almost impossible for a dust supply to fail--but it is generally "home-made," and the flower is often too impatient to wait for the winged dustmen whose loads nature would prefer; the crown tumbles off--the signal flags are hauled down--the seeds fare badly, and the plant chiefly relies on runners for increase. Kerner states that under favourable circumstances they will cover a plot of six paces square in two years. Perhaps the early season of Periwinkle flowers and the places where they blossom are against insect visits. Plenty are paid to the little cousin, but the botanist (Müller) who have given most attention to the matter, only once saw one insect come to our big friend. Darwin brought about the only ripe seeds he ever found in England by mimicking the dustman. He smeared a bristle with a big sticky dust of one Periwinkle flower and passed it down against the tip of the dust shoot in another flower.
I am not sure whether Vinca Major does not ripen seeds in England oftener than is supposed. You might see if you cannot find a few--not in order to outdo Darwin, but in order to admire them. Along the ridges of their curious wrinkles they are almost black--in the furrows they shine with a deep glossy brown. Ants are said to plant them in odd places--unconscious Mary's of the Wood as also of the Meadow.
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