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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The fall

Posted on September 19 2008 at 2:58:14 0 comments

Autumn leaves

Mary Green watches the seasonal change from summer fun to autumn fungi.

October is the month when we really see “the fall” as leaves turn colour and fall from trees. It’s also a month when fungi are rising out of the damp ground. It is a time for gathering an edible harvest, probably the last chance before next March.

I am writing this in early September during very wet weather; however, the permanent cloud means we haven’t had cold nights yet. By October, we should have some frosts.

This year’s natural harvest has been very odd. As I reported last month, there are very few plums, damsons or sloes, though I have found some fruiting with no apparent advantages of situation.

However, some of the cherry plums have fruited well this year. They are the ones that flower very early, in February usually, so I would have expected them to suffer more from the spring frosts. They often don’t set fruit.

This year there are some lovely fruits, yellow or red (though the best ones I have found are inaccessible on the non-towpath bank of the canal!). I can only assume that they were able to set fruits early enough to withstand the worst frosts, which did strike late.

The blackberry harvest has been wonderful this year, because of the rain and lack of cold nights. They are profuse; ripe, plump and sweet everywhere. If you still want to pick some, you can claim to be going by the old calendar when Michaelmas fell in what is now mid-October!

The leaves turn colour and fall in a somewhat unpredictable sequence depending on the weather. Unless it gets a lot colder I don’t think they will go very early this year. Usually the horse chestnuts are the first to go brown and fall – this year some of them went even earlier because of a pest that has been damaging horse chestnuts.

The conkers are ripe by now and it is your last chance to collect them for traditional conker-fights. You can sometimes see the “sticky buds” ready for next year among the conker cases.

Sweet chestnuts should be fruiting too, though they need a good summer to do really well. In 2006 I remember collecting enough to be worth roasting on a cool October evening.

Ash leaves turn yellow early and often drop early too, so these trees are often bare by October. Their seeds, ash “keys”, fall too. Earlier on you can pick these while they are still green and soft and pickle them.

Non-native ornamental maples in gardens and parks turn by October and are often the most vivid reds and golds. Our native field maple is a little later and a lovely bright yellow. All maples keep their coloured leaves on long enough to look stunning.

My favourites among the native trees at this time are the beech and oak. Beeches turn a rich red-brown and keep their leaves well. In and around Alvechurch there are some wonderful beeches, especially one which stands sentinel at the edge of the village on the Redditch side.

Beeches were also traditionally planted in groups on hilltops. Frankley Beeches are a famous local example but there are many other little clumps like this.

Oaks can be very late in turning and are at their best at the end of the month or even into November. They don’t all turn at the same time even in the same place. Their leaves are a beautiful golden brown, and the shapes of the trees make them a wonderful sight.

This year the oaks are full of acorns. Like beech mast, these were traditionally food for wild and farm animals, and at shortage times for humans too. All that spectacular colour and leaf fall is the way trees prepare for next year, and a sign of good health.

The fruits of the trees may still be good, though going over now. Blackberries, crab apples, haws, hips, elderberries, and the occasional sloes may still be there for hedgerow jam, alongside the acorns and conkers. Sometimes they fall so profusely you can hear them plopping into the canal or hitting cars on the lanes.

One berry not everyone is familiar with is the spindle, though the spindle tree is quite common along the canal and on roadsides. It ripens quite late, but was full of fruit last year and I am hopeful for this year.

It is not edible, but one of the most beautiful and surprising native species, its shocking pink segmented berries with bright orange centres refuting the myth that clashing colours don’t occur naturally.

This is of course the time for fungi, which may or may not be prolific depending on the warmth and wetness they like. They can have a very long season. Last year on Boxing Day I picked field mushrooms, horse mushrooms and blewitts on a Cornish headland.

There are good old sheep pastures around here, and woodland, so we should be lucky with fungus. Locally last year I found only a handful of field mushrooms in a field where I picked bagfuls in 2006, but I did find lots of shaggy caps (among other places, in my neighbour’s garden!), a very distinctive and easily identified mushroom, edible and good while young.

Last year I found fly agaric, the familiar red and white spotted “sacred mushroom”, poisonous and not very common round here, and always stunning to see. I have already found some this year in woods near Clent.

I found some boletus: unfortunately they weren’t the fine tasting ceps, but a small cow bolete, which is not recommended for eating. The true cep, or “penny bun” is a big brown mushroom with spongy underside, quite unmistakeable and delicious.

I have found the beautiful yellow chanterelles, though not locally, but I also found the funny-looking cauliflower fungus (which does look like a cauliflower and is edible) growing in local woods.

Next spring, you can look out for the St George’s mushroom which, as the name suggests, appears in late April and early May. There is nothing else like it at that time of year, so it’s pretty safe, and tastes gorgeous. Don’t eat any fungi unless you are sure what they are, though!

The mallard drakes have got their full colour back again now after their drab late-summer feathers. On the canal near me, there has been a lone swan for most of the year, where we always had a couple and two years ago a whole family. However, lately a couple has reappeared.

I can’t tell if it’s the lone swan and a new mate, or a new couple, but they have been a pleasure to watch as they have been bonding by mirroring each other’s movements.

October is traditionally a time for fairs, including the Alvechurch Mop. These were held after the harvest, and were part of the festivities before winter began to close in. St Luke’s day, October 18, was said to have a spell of good weather called “St Luke’s little summer”.
At the end of the month is the old Celtic festival of Samhain, which marks the start of winter, and the Christian All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day.

These festivals celebrate the dead, and used to have bonfires and a tradition of misrule or mischief on the evening before the main day. Much of this has now been absorbed into the modern Halloween and Bonfire night.

The fire festivals match the wild red colours of the trees in having one last flaming celebration before the darker days come.

Wood smoke
by Juliet Horne

Walking up the tumbled road I smell wood smoke
Curling from the canal boats’ enamelled stoves
Or from the tall chimneypot on the policeman’s cottage.

Redolent of past and possibility,
The smoke hangs in the still hazed air
Cut through here and there by crisply falling leaves.

Heat releases history from the timber.
An ancient memory of autumn mornings among oaks.
Deer grazing on moss soaked earth
And the distant sound of the woodcutter.

A childhood memory of darkening afternoons.
Cold hands welcomed home to hot chocolate by the fire.
Warmth gilded with anticipation
Of blackberrying, bonfires and Christmas lights.

Or a memory of something more foreign.
A wooden hut in the high cold mountains.
Sweet spiced tea drunk from tin cups around a Tibetan table.
Midnight stumbling over moonlit mountain
to the loo that overlooks the world.

Each memory hangs pegged above the flames,
Infused with oak smoke.
The past preserved.

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