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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Mists & mellow fruitfulness

Posted on August 19 2008 at 6:50:51 0 comments


The arrival of autumn brings a rich harvest of nuts and berries, plus plenty of wildlife, writes Mary Green.

I wasn’t in England for St Swithin’s Day so I don’t know how well it predicted our weather for July and August. Where I was, in Africa, it was dry and warm, and I was watching hippos and impala lilies instead of dragonflies and meadowsweet. It has obviously been quite warm and wet here, so the fields and trees still look green.

The next date with weather lore is the autumn equinox on September 21, some of which traditions now attach to Michaelmas on September 29. Traditionally this is the time of “equinoctial gales”, and there was indeed a day this time last year with tornadoes in the Midlands.

The next full moon after the equinox is the “harvest moon”, but this will be in October this year.

Last year we had a perfect harvest moon on a cold night in September and lit the first fire of the winter. Michaelmas used to be an important festival (when everyone who could ate goose) and is still one of our financial quarter days.

Its flower, the Michaelmas daisy (now renamed September Flower by florists who presumably fear we don’t recognise Michaelmas) is not a native plant but is naturalised and grows extensively along road and railway embankments.

As I suspected, the fruits of the trees in the plum family – plums, bullace, damsons and sloes – are virtually non-existent around here, and elsewhere in England, this year. They didn’t survive the frost and snow in April. This time last year I was picking bags and bags of sloes and I’m glad I made enough sloe gin to last into this winter!

However, the blackberries look good this year. I had my first ripe one in July – the kind with the few big pips come first – and there is a big crop ripening up. They’re one of the few fruits still commonly picked and eaten, perhaps because they are so recognisable.

Legend has it that you have to eat them before Michaelmas, as on that day the devil spits on them (or something worse in many legends) and they do tend to get a bit overblown and fly-ridden after September.

And there is a good apple crop in places, including crab apples and wilding apples. Crabs are small and very sour but make superlative jams and jellies. Wilding apples, naturalised from old orchards, come in all sizes and flavours and are often edible raw.

The familiar blackberries and apples are not the only fruits around. Hawthorn is edible, as are rose hips (full of vitamin C, and collected for it during the war, but take out the hairy seeds!), rowan and elder berries. Even without the sloes I shall make some of my favourite “hedgerow jam” from whatever is available.

The hedges will also be full of non-edible fruit, especially the beautiful red necklaces of bryony and the still-green holly berries, with the verges full of the red berries of cuckoo-pint.

Our native nut, the hazel, is good at this time of year if you can beat the squirrels to it. Going out nutting was a popular activity. There are various superstitions about days in September (especially Holy Cross Day on September 14) when “the devil goes nutting” so you have to desist for a day. 

Over in Eades Meadows you can find another rarity at this time of year. Meadow saffron (colchicum) used to be a common plant of meadows, but there are not many places left which offer the properly managed meadow habitat.

Meadow saffron can be confused with autumn crocus: both are pink and flower nakedly after the leaves have gone. Although it is a completely different family, you have to do some close work on stamens and stigmas to tell them apart!

This saffron is poisonous and is not the one that produces the expensive spice, which is in fact a crocus. The leaves are huge strappy things in the late spring, helping you to remember where to look for the lovely pink autumn flowers. After these, the meadow will be cut and grazed through the winter.

Harvest time is a great time for insects and spiders, including those called harvesters (crane flies or daddy-long-legs) and harvestmen (spiders with long thin legs) which fly or walk into your rooms on warm autumn evenings.

Wasps get drunk on rotting fruit – they too will miss my plums and damsons. Last year was very wasp-free, presumably due to the cold wet summer. Spiders seem to come into the house a lot at this time, probably in search of mates.

Weather lore has it that spiders spin copious webs when fine weather is due, which makes sense as they don’t waste their constructions when wet weather and wind might destroy them. Those early morning gossamer threads common at this time of year glinting in the sun are the way young spiders travel to find a new home.

When I started this diary, a local resident said that they were all in favour of wildlife – except rabbits. They are a very common mammal round here and have bred well during the spring and summer (as I know from the remnants left in my garden by the neighbours’ cats).

Despite the damage they cause, they are fascinating to watch and probably help to account for our good buzzard population. They are especially numerous in the fields that have been planted with trees between Hopwood and Alvechurch.

I see plenty of foxes round here too; always an exciting moment. I watched one recently run fluidly down a motorway embankment, another stepping quietly through fields behind houses, and the eerie bark at night always makes me tingle.

As I mentioned last month, the birds have gone rather quiet now. You will see swallows gathering on wires ready to fly away, and the swifts will have gone. At this time you notice how many pigeons there are, especially around any crops.

As well as the wood pigeon, we have collared doves aplenty. They are buff-coloured with a black neck ring, and have a distinctive three-syllabled call. I sometimes think there is always one outside your bedroom window wherever you are.

Pheasants are very visible in their gorgeous plumage, especially as the young have now grown enough to run with the adults but not acquired the wisdom to avoid your car.

This time last year, an invasive alien weed appeared on the canal, especially in the “dead arm” near Alvechurch, and on some ponds and lakes. I found out later from the British Waterways wildlife officer that it is American pennywort.

It dies back in cold weather but is very choking in summer and autumn. It has come back this year, but not as badly.

If we have wet weather, we will start to see some fungi appearing in September. Last year there was a great crop of shaggy caps here – unmistakable and edible. More about that next month.

The autumn equinox is traditionally a time of balance, standing between summer and winter. To me though it is an exciting time and often means new beginnings, though this may be due to my having worked in education for most of my life!

The poem this time seems autumnal to me and is one I wrote last September.

Old ladies

Old ladies, we make jam, and present pots of it to each other,
Strawberry, damson, bramble,
And we have our hair done and admire each other’s clothes.
But you don’t know what we might do.
We might go camping in the rain, create beautiful structures from flowers,
Climb mountains in a strange land,
Make unwise love among the buttercups, or take up white water rafting,
Or sit patiently by a fallen husband, as by a tree.

We thought that by this time passion would be quietened.
But look at us.
We have ferocious love for our children and grandchildren, our men, our sisters
Unable to close our hands.

Outside the autumn dusk thickens.
Inside, we each have the little hard thing, like ice, like crystal
That keeps the light in us.

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