Sunday September 27 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

September harvest

Posted on August 31 2018 at 1:01:19 0 comments


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

The hot dry summer had quite an effect on wildlife, though not always in the ways you would expect. Wild vegetation manages the drought better than most gardens and parks.

It flourished especially well along the canal where there was reliable water for its roots. Our river, the Arrow, got very dry, but kept enough water for a green patch through the dry fields.

Butterflies and other insects such as bees and dragonflies did really well, again especially near the canal where there was abundant flower for nectar and still-green leaves for the new caterpillars to feed on.

Some plants loved the weather: there was a spectacular spread of wild carrot, for example, and water lilies colonised new parts of the canal.

Most of the trees survived quite well, as their roots are deep enough to reach the underlying water (remember way back to the very wet early spring!).

But planted crops suffered – apparently there was a problem with Christmas trees drying up (not native to here) and a reduction in grain and vegetable sizes.

The corn harvest was early and easy, but reduced in volume. Grapes loved it, though, as they have a really long root that goes right down to the water, with a great vintage predicted for English wines.

There was also a record lavender crop. Strawberries, both wild and cultivated, did really well, but it was a very short asparagus season!

Until relatively recently, the seasons were defined differently in England. Autumn was from August to October, the harvest season starting with the feast of Lammas. So we are already well into autumn.

Winter was from November to January, starting with All Saints’ Day. Spring started in February with Candlemas, and May ushered in the summer with the May Day celebrations.

These are echoed in the Celtic festivals of Lughnasa, Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane, and make sense of the solstices and equinoxes being in the middle of each season.

September holds the autumn equinox when day and night are equal length, and many harvest festivals.

The Celtic trees for September are apple and vine. The first is self-explanatory, the second a little obscure. It probably doesn’t mean the grape vine, which was not introduced here till Roman times, though the Celts may have included grape vines at a later date.

There are several native “vines” it could be – ivy, honeysuckle, clematis, hop, for example – but the consensus is that it probably means bramble.  So we have a tasty pair for this month – blackberry and apple!

Apple trees carry a weight of myths and legends, just as in some years they are bowed down with the weight of apples. We have our native crab apple, and for many centuries have bred other, sweeter and larger, varieties.

At some point the tree of knowledge in the Bible was identified with the apple in our translations, though it wasn’t necessarily that in the original language.

So the apple is the tree of wisdom and knowledge, but also because it led to the “Fall” of human beings from immortality into human life, it is also a tree of sex and fertility, often associated with women. It carries messages of love and health.

The fact that it is a host to the magical mistletoe gives it even more significance, and in Celtic legends it grows at the entrance to the next world.

Apples can live to a great age for a small tree, often surviving even when the heart wood has gone and only the outer layer is left. This also adds to their mythical nature.

No other tree has so many traditional songs sung about it, mostly at the time of “wassailing” or blessing the apples. It grows really well throughout the country, but especially in the Midlands and South.

A good crop of apples meant fruit for the whole winter, not to mention plenty of cider.

I can remember our farmhouse attic having apples laid out all across the floor during the winter, keeping cool, and it was a treat to still have them at Christmas, even if we did get fed up with them around October!

Modern storage methods mean they can be kept fresh even longer, until spring.

Wassailing was meant to encourage growth and warm wet weather through the sympathetic magic of rousing the trees with noise and pouring cider and ale over them.

Crab apples, our native ones, have lovely pink-and-white blossom, and small green or yellow sour apples. The apples make wonderful jams and jellies, and were roasted with meat and in punch, so the tree was valued for its culinary uses.

You can still find them around here (my nearest is in Birches Lane), though many of the trees you see are “wildings”. These are cultivated apples from orchards, spread by birds or from discarded cores, and they can produce lovely free edible fruit.

There is one by the dead arm of the canal and another at the start of Lodge Farm Lane, with many along the canal. Apple trees were also much planted in hedges, sometimes grafted on to crab apples.

Apples were so important that there are phrases like “the apple of my eye” to mean someone much loved. They were seen as a good food to combat sickness, and are an excellent digestible source of vitamins.

“Comfort me with apples,” says the Song of Solomon, “for I am sick of love.”

Cider was the everyday drink of men, women and children in country areas, as late as my childhood (the children on the next farm had free access to the barrel!).

Around here it was very common, but now we have only one cider-maker left at Tardebigge.

Orchard apples have some wonderful old varieties with a great diversity of flavour and curious names: Bedfordshire Foundling, Bloody Ploughman, Dog’s Snout, English Foxwhelp, Peasgood’s Nonsuch, Annie Elizabeth (my grandmother’s names!) and of course our local Worcester Pearmain.

They include cider apples, cooking apples and dessert apples which range from the very early ones that don’t keep to the later ones that keep well.

Even some of the varieties I remember from my youth are rarer now – the early Beauty of Bath and green, sharp Granny Smith, for example.

Modern standardised varieties like Golden Delicious and Braeburn have driven them out. There are still some surviving in people’s gardens (including mine!) and old orchards (like the ones at Tardebigge Lime Kilns) but there is no protection for them.

You can put a preservation order on an oak or ash, but not on an ancient apple orchard, which is seen as just a commercial crop.

Wildings and hedge-plantings have helped preserve some of the old varieties when the orchards were destroyed in the 1970s.

Orchards were good for wildlife. As well as the blossom feeding bees, the ground beneath was often left to old grasses and wild flowers, excellent for butterflies.

You can find some echoes of this in places like the Old Orchard between Barnt Green and Blackwell, which has uncommon wildflowers like betony as well as spring bluebells.

Apples are from the rose family, the most wonderful edible plant family we have, and so are brambles. But while we love apples, most of us hate brambles and cut them down whenever possible.

This is a shame as they are a vital element of our biodiversity. (Mind you, they are so successful that even I take some of the bigger ones out from my garden!)

They grow everywhere, even under trees as they can climb to the light, and are full of nectar-rich flowers feeding insects for a long period (much better than the short-lived native roses, though the flowers are actually very similar) and then of berries which feed birds through the autumn. You can eat the very young shoots, too.

I find it hard to understand how people can cut down brambles and then buy blackberries in the supermarket. Blackberrying is one of our commonest foraging experience, even in cities where kids pick them on waste land – or used to!

There are hundreds of different micro-species of bramble, and you can recognise that some have fewer, bigger, juicier seeds, some come earlier or later, some are sweeter or sourer.

Brambles used to be placed on graves, to deter grazing animals, and they were welcome in woodlands once because they protect young seedlings from grazing animals.

Now everyone seems to see them as somehow dangerous and to be cut down.

This year is not such a great apple year as last year, but they should be really sweet. Many of the brambles are a bit dry, but where they are within reach of water by their good roots, they have been lush and lovely.

I have had my first blackberry and apple crumble already, which I make without sugar, using the natural sweetness of the fruit.

Remember you have to stop picking blackberries on Michaelmas Day (September 29) because the devil pees on them that day!

* We somehow managed to put the wrong caption on one of the pictures last month – the bottom picture on page 45 is St Dabeoc’s heath, not field maple.

This is a poem I wrote recently on the theme of childhood.

That girl

What would she think of me, that girl?
Standing in the cool pantry, quiet and still
Among the pans of clotted cream and butter
Struck by a feeling of a future life
With a knowledge of some sort of light
That would guide her in difficult times.
She was skinny, cross-eyed, pigtailed
Hands smelling of cowshit, nostrils full
Of the wild smell of barley, ears lulled
At night by the sound of receding sea.
She already wrote, wanting to catch
The passing spring and press wild flowers
Into words. What did she want to be? I forget.
She half knew she would be a little odd
Never happy in girly talk and dresses
Bright and bookish, reading Wuthering Heights
Non-stop on the living room sofa
As the winter gales howled outside the window.
I think she would be pleased with my life
Though maybe it didn’t travel that far
Still writing poems and smelling barley fields
Sill fighting to follow where that light takes me.

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