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Sunday May 27 2018

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Village Features

Till May be out

Posted on April 30 2018 at 3:00:55

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Mary Green continues her series on trees in the Celtic calendar.

Usually the start of May brings the hawthorn blossom, though I suspect this year it may be a bit late.

When I was young it usually flowered mid-to-late May, and 50 years later it usually flowers in early May, or even late April in a mild year – a signal of the warming climate.

However, this year it may go back to the old days.

Hawthorn is of course also called may and is very much the tree of this month. It’s my tree, as my birthday is in May. It’s also the tree of the Celtic female spirit in her mature form, and later of the Virgin Mary in many Catholic countries.

There’s a poem by the 19th century priest Gerard Manley Hopkins which begins:

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why

The reason is that it follows a common pattern: a tree important to the pagans was “taken over” into Christianity, and Brigid’s traditions become Mary’s – just as Imbolc became Candlemas.

Like ash, hawthorn gives its name to one of the letters of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon alphabet, called “thorn” – the one we now spell “th”.

Hawthorn in blossom was associated with sex and childbirth, partly because of its musky smell. It was part of the celebration of Beltane, the May spring festival.

It continued to be gathered as part of May Day festivities when boughs were gathered and brought into houses.

However, its pagan overtones led to it being banned from churches and even from the house as “unlucky,” until they thought of re-aligning it with Mary. This didn’t affect protestant areas where it is often still not accepted to have hawthorn blossom in church.

Ironically it often grows around churchyards and there is a lovely one at the main gate to St Laurence in Alvechurch.

There are many legends which include the magical powers of hawthorn, or whitethorn as it is often called. The best known is the Glastonbury thorn, said to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea which he stuck into the ground.

This variety, called Praecox, flowers very early, even sometimes in winter.

The legends around St Kenelm of Romsley are a more local example. He was an early ninth-century Mercian boy-king, murdered while hunting near Clent.

The legend says that the previous night he had dreamt of his death, his dream including a tree decorated by flowers and lanterns.

His body was hurriedly buried nearby but was discovered by miraculous means (a white dove flew to Rome carrying the message that he was buried under a white thorn in Worcestershire) and a group came from Rome to re-inter it.

When the delegation came to look for him, they found a hawthorn tree which had been visited by a miraculous white cow, which ate nothing but produced milk every night under the tree. There was the body.

When they dug him up, a spring burst forth and produced health-giving waters. There is still a spring, and people still decorate the trees there.

The real story of hawthorn is as good as the legends. The old English variety is called the midland hawthorn and was a woodland-edge and stand-alone tree before the days of hedges. There are still some around here. Some were important boundary trees.

The more modern variety is the common hawthorn, which flowers slightly later and has less glossy leaves. This was the favourite tree for hedging. Hawthorn is dense and prickly, grows quite fast, and can be laid to make a stock-proof hedge.

From the 16th century on, landowners started dividing off their fields and making them animal-proof. Before this time, most animals had been grazed on common land which had no internal boundaries.

When wool became big business, sheep fields were sealed off and the commoners’ rights taken away. This led to serious poverty and in some areas like Scotland, depopulation.

A rhyme at the time said you could be hanged for stealing a goose from the common, but the rich could steal the common off the goose with impunity.

Hawthorn flourished over the next centuries as the hedging tree of preference. It is still very common in all our hedges. It is now common on motorways, where a European variety is often planted, which flowers even earlier.

In more remote areas, and in open pasture fields that haven’t been “improved,” you will find stand-alone trees, often growing to quite a height.

It has contributed hugely to our biodiversity. Because it is planted in long lines, has lots of insect-attracting flowers and bird-feeding berries, it is the perfect wildlife corridor.

Our rather traditional farming area here is full of hawthorn hedges, along roads, fields, paths and the canal.

In May, hawthorn with its masses of creamy blossom is obvious, but it’s useful at other times of year too. The first green leaves appear quite early, in February in a mild year and in March this year.

They are edible and delicious, and were commonly called “bread-and-cheese” because they were a staple food for country people.

The flowers are edible too – use them to decorate fruit salads or make a wonderful musky liqueur with gin or brandy! The berries, known as haws, are plentiful and can feed us as well as birds.

They taste like little apples – you can pick and eat them like sweets in autumn or add them to a hedgerow jam.

Like apple, hawthorn is part of the rose family, all of which are edible for us and wonderful for insects and birds. The thrush family especially feed on hawthorn berries – thrushes, redwings, fieldfares, blackbirds.

West Bromwich Albion has a ground called The Hawthorns and its symbol is a thrush.

My second tree this month is hornbeam, which doesn’t feature on the Celtic calendar but is quite common in England. It is little-known and not often recognised, though.

It looks a bit like beech, with similar silky lime-green serrated leaves in spring. But the flowers are totally different – it is another catkin-bearing tree.

The best place to see it here is the hedge that runs alongside the path from Alvechurch village to the churchyard. This is a beautifully-laid hedge and shows one of the common uses of hornbeam – hedging. It grows well when clipped and trained so is often an ornamental tree in gardens.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was popular for the hedging of mazes and the kind of garden compartments that formal grounds were laid out in. It grows so closely that the branches often grow into each other and it can form dense tunnels.

You can find hornbeam growing naturally in quite a lot of woodlands around here. The ones I especially noticed were in Abberley woods, on the slopes of that distinctive hill you can see from the high ground around here. They were obviously planted at one time for use.

Hornbeam is a very hard wood, so much so that it wasn’t used much for ordinary objects, but was made into working parts like cog-wheels, and used for the yokes of oxen.

There are some fine clipped hornbeam features at Hewell Grange. The prison grounds are usually open to the public for a day in May under the National Gardens Scheme and are well worth a visit.

Personally, I don’t like these clipped trees and formal lawns, with few flowers and very little habitat for wildlife, and these big hedges need extensive maintenance, but they are very popular!

Laid hedges are another matter, as they serve a useful purpose and allow the trees to keep growing and flowering. Hawthorn makes a superb laid hedge too, often covered with blossom. There are several of these along the fields and lanes around Withybed, and a lovely one near Grange Lane bridge on the canal. May wouldn’t be May without the may!

I wrote this poem last May.

May
May sun is the best sun. It has no threat
And the fine gold leaves still let it through.
You may find me by the canal, watching ducks
Herding their little unruly ducklings in the sedge
Or chasing an orange-tip along the lady’s smock,
Checking the nesting goose, who tries again
In the same place where she failed last year,
Looking out for the swans, which I know
Have six cygnets hatched, and may come down.
I may be standing in the field, sun on my back,
Feeling the thrust of green winged orchids
Breaking into summer under my feet.
I may be on a boat, close to the moorhen
Which is sitting pretty on a blackthorn branch
Or driving the lanes, my breath catching
At a sudden pool of bluebells in a copse.
At night I may be walking the towpath
The moon in the cow-parsley lighting my way.
I may be singing in the noisy outdoors
Our songs of praise for all humanity
Or listening to the thrush, heart-breaking
Above the daily drumming of the woodpecker.
You may see me standing, transfixed
Hand cupped to my ear as I ask myself
Was that really the cuckoo? And he calls again.
I may not be indoors, doing all the things
I should be doing, responsibly
There is too much hawthorn in my blood for that.


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