Tuesday August 04 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Mad March days

Posted on February 28 2015 at 11:35:23 0 comments


Mary Green celebrates the countryside flora and fauna of early spring.

There are lots of changes around here. Trees have been planted along the widened railway line: native English trees, sourced in the Midlands, planted by a local contractor. They include hawthorn, blackthorn and some oak, but not ash. Planters can’t risk bringing in ash die-back in new trees.

The banks alongside the railway have been sown with a mixture of grass seed and wild flowers. Eventually, we should have a good wildlife corridor back.

Meanwhile, the canal towpath from Withybed to Cooper’s Hill has been resurfaced and is a joy to walk along. They are now working on the next stretch to the station. However, vegetation on both sides of the path has been affected.

We will have to see what comes back of a varied and complex group of plants. The Canal and Rivers Trust says that if native plants do not return they will do some replanting next year.

March, as we all know, comes in like a lion and out like a lamb – or vice versa. It is the month of the spring equinox, and thus has its festivals and folklore. By March, we know we are really in spring, even though the weather can be cold still. I am writing this in a very cold February!

March has two of our national saints: St David on March 1 and St Patrick on March 17. Saint David, for Wales, has the daffodil as one of his emblems. The small native daffodil really does flower at this time, though some garden varieties may be earlier, or later in a cold year.

It grows in the wild still in parts of the Midlands, in Herefordshire especially, and is common in Devon and Cornwall, and spectacularly in Farndale in Yorkshire. You can find them closer to home, though probably specially planted (like the ones in my garden) rather than truly wild.

Down by the river in The Meadows there are some native ones, though the daffs in the rest of the park are garden varieties. There are lovely ones at Hanbury Church. At one time the Herefordshire flowers were picked en masse and sent by train to the London markets – which did the plants no harm.

Daffodils are also called Lent lilies, a good name as they are in the lily family and flower in Lent. They are thought to have come over with the Romans.

The bulbs are poisonous, like most bulbs except the onion family – but this means that they contain a drug, which is now being used medicinally.

Apparently the Public Health authorities have issued guidance to shops not to display daffodils next to food, after they have had several cases of poisoning from people eating them.

One of the onion family, the leek, is St David’s other symbol. The wild leek does grow in this country, but I have only seen it in Cornwall. Wild garlic is common around here though, and the leaves will be up and available to eat in March – look by the River Arrow.

Cornish garlic is naturalised in some places too – the one with the three-cornered leaf – and I have already been eating leaves from mine this year. Both are delicious raw or cooked.

St Patrick’s plant is the shamrock. No one is quite sure what three-leaved plant the old Irish word “shamrock” refers to. Most people think it is one of the types of clover (lesser, white or red) but others think it is the wood sorrel.

The latter is backed up by references in old writings to the Irish eating shamrock. Wood sorrel leaves were often eaten but clover leaves weren’t – though the flowers might have been.

Anyway, the name is used for many of the “trefoils” – three-leaved plants. Clover is common in meadows and wood sorrel in ancient woodland around here (especially in Peck Wood).

Although wood sorrel was eaten – and still is, especially in posh restaurants – it contains a very high level of oxalic acid and shouldn’t be eaten in any quantity. It has a lovely fresh acidic taste, like the other, unrelated, sorrel in the dock family.

Clover is an important food for grazing animals, and has come back to prominence in the resurgence of pasture-fed cattle. It is liked by and nutritious for livestock; it fixes nitrogen, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers; it grows in a great range of soils and climates.

Bees and butterflies love it as it has good nectar. When we were children (and sometimes now) we used to pull off the individual florets and suck out the honey.

St Patrick’s Day usually comes in Lent, and was often seen by Irish children as a chance to let the fast slip for a day and indulge in chocolate – and their parents to do the same with alcohol!

The colour green associated with this saint is especially suitable for March, and sometimes in US cities with a high population of Irish descent they dye the rivers green for the day.

The other opportunity to break your Lenten fast was Mothering Sunday. This traditionally gave you the day off to go back and visit your mother and your mother church.

The simnel cake eaten on this day (and sometimes at Easter too) was a great indulgence in the days of fast, made with expensive imported dried fruit and almonds, as well as eggs, sugar and flour.

The flower most associated with Mothering Sunday is the primrose (though sadly nowadays people seem to give their mothers imported flowers). It is at its best in March, and children in my day all picked bunches of them to give their mothers. My mother even sent me some for Mothering Sunday in the year I left home and went to live in a city!

Primroses are edible and lovely on a salad or dessert. They are open-flowered, with good nectar for butterflies and other insects. Last year I saw the early brimstone butterflies on them – both the same colour.

If you look closely you can see the two different forms of primrose – pin-eyed and thrum-eyed &#8211 (pictured below right); one of which has the stigma and one the stamens (pollen-bearing) prominent.

An insect such as a brimstone butterfly visiting a pin-eyed flower gets pollen stuck to the middle of its proboscis from the anthers half-way down the flower tube. If it then goes to visit a thrum-eyed flower, the pollen is perfectly positioned to be wiped off on the stigma, halfway down the flower tube.

The name “primrose” means the first or early rose – a sign of its importance. It loves undisturbed field banks and roadsides and more open woods. Many have been lost through the cutting-back of roadside vegetation.

But Devon and Cornwall still have miles of primrose banks, especially now they have a regimen of not mowing during the growing season. You can find them here on the bank below the church in Alvechurch, on the roadsides at Weatheroak and along Birches Lane, among other places.

The spring equinox, around March 21/22, is the time when day and night are roughly equal length. Traditionally there were festivals of fertility around this time in all the ancient civilisations.

Many of these were later attached to Easter, which usually comes next month but is occasionally in March. Easter is of course one of those old festivals which is linked to the moon, not the sun, so it doesn’t fit exactly with our calendar, and is a “movable feast”. 

The egg and chicken are traditional spring symbols for new life, and this is the time of year when birds in the wild are nesting and the eggs being laid. This means birds are singing, and this is a great time of year to hear the dawn chorus (because dawn isn’t too early yet!).


One of the birds that migrate here in March is the chiff-chaff. It is a rather nondescript little brown bird, but the song is pure spring – a bouncy “chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff” jumping from note to note.

March is the time of the mad March hare, of course. Hares aren’t so common around here as rabbits, but I’ve seen them on the higher arable land towards Tardebigge. Hares run fast – up to 35 mph – and are usually shy and hard to spot.

However, in March they engage in chasing and fighting. This was always thought to be two males “boxing” over a female, but now we know it is usually a female testing the mettle of a male to see if she wants to mate with him, and fighting him off if she doesn’t.

Hares live individually or in pairs, not in groups, though they do sometimes gather together around their main mating period in spring. They don’t burrow like rabbits but have their young in a shallow depression in the ground called a “form”.

Again unlike rabbits, the young can fend for themselves very soon after birth, and don’t stay with their mother long.

The hare is one of the most potent magical symbols across the world. Ancient people thought hares were hermaphrodites, male one month and female the next, and that the male hare could become pregnant.

Hares were thought to be able to start another pregnancy before they’d given birth to the last one – probably because they have a lot of litters and a short gestation. They are promiscuous and don’t stay with a mate.

This high fertility made them a symbol of life – some even believed hares could come back from the dead.

With the balance between male and female, hares were associated with the balance of day and night in the equinox and credited with magical powers. They were also associated with the full moon, partly because of “madness” and partly their nocturnal feeding habits.

In Celtic symbolism, three hares are often shown chasing each other round in a circle – an emblem of eternal life.

As a symbol of spring, the hare morphed into the Easter Bunny, which remains with us. The fertility of March also appears Christianised in Lady Day. This is one of the “quarter days” used in financial years, originally based on the equinoxes and solstices. Lady Day was traditionally the day when the angel Gabriel visited Mary and she conceived Christ.

Everywhere along the hedges you will see the frothy white of blackthorn blossom (pictured top), following the earlier cherry-plum. It has tiny white flowers, in a good year thickly clustered up the black stems.

Blackthorn, like its cousin hawthorn, is a great survivor, planted as hedging and popping up in neglected grassland. I have childhood memories of it growing on precarious cliffs over the sea. It is the origin of our modern plums.

As it is so tough and strong, its branches were often used as walking sticks, including ceremonial sticks in some army regiments, and the Irish club, the shillelagh. It makes good firewood too. The flowers en masse are perfumed, though with a lighter scent than hawthorn.

Chaucer wrote about blackthorn as an image for youth and beauty – one of his heroines has eyes as black as sloes and skin as white as the blossom.

Sloes are the berries, of course, and have a powerful plum flavour in their bitterness, perfect for sloe gin. In ancient times the sloes were buried in pits until they became sweeter with age and were eaten.

The leaves come after the flowers, and provide food for many moth caterpillars including brimstones, emperors and emeralds. The flowers are insect-pollinated. Nightingales love to nest in thickets of blackthorn.

It is considered a symbol of life and death as the flowers appear on black leafless stems, and was traditionally not brought into the house.

There is often a spell of bad weather in early March, which is called the “blackthorn winter”. I hope we don’t have one this year and that you manage to enjoy spring coming.

Last year, one of the Withybed Poets’ themes was “names.” This was my poem – suitably green!

What’s in a name?
They asked me, when you got divorced
Why didn’t you take back your maiden name?
Well, that would be my father’s name of course
One man’s name instead of another.
I could be Icelandic and be Marjoriesdottir
Or go all new-age and be Hawthorn Greenspring.
But no, I’ll stick with the one I’ve got
Those married years weren’t cancelled out
And I wasn’t the same at the end as at the start
Just as well try to recapture my virginity.
So I’ll keep it. It’s a good name: everyone can spell it
And I didn’t know how suitable it would be
For the wild old weed-eating woman I’ve become.
If I have to choose a name, I would be Green.

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