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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Cream of the crop

Posted on April 30 2017 at 9:44:13 0 comments

Hawthorn bushes

Mary Green celebrates the colours of May in meadows and woodland.

The rather fluctuating spring weather culminated in some warm days at the start of April, so everything seemed to come out at once. On the same day I saw cherry plum, blackthorn, plum, damson and wild cherry blossom out – which usually spans a couple of months! 

If you get your Village nice and early, there will still be time to see the bluebells at the wonderful Peck Wood in Rowney Green – it’s open over the bank holiday weekend (April 28 to May 1, with tea on May 1).

There are directions on their website. I saw my first bluebells out on April 5 and ducklings on April 6.

The first thing you notice about May is that the predominant green and white have come back – or rather green and cream. Everything seems to foam around us like the top of the milk or the head on a good pint of ale.

It’s a very exuberant month when many plants are at the height of flower and growth.

Even the green is different – a strong bright green, not like the pale shoots of early spring or the darker heavy green of full summer. Unlike February, though, the green and white now is scattered with colours of all kinds – reds and pinks, blues and purples, yellows.

The flowers of hawthorn (also called may or whitethorn) are of course the outstanding sight in the countryside this month. This is especially true around here. We have plenty of hedgerows because we still have smallish fields, and common hawthorn is the predominant hedgerow shrub.

Some of the hedges are very old and date back to the times of the enclosures in the 16th century, when fields were hedged to keep sheep in for the first time. Before this, people grazed their animals on common land or on the open hillsides.

Sheep became such an important commodity that common land was taken away from people so the landowners could make money from sheep – mostly of course from their wool which was the main source of fibre for clothing.

Cotton didn’t become common till the 19th century; linen was grown but was rather expensive for ordinary people, and silk of course was out of reach of all but the rich. Hawthorn makes great stock-proof hedging and it was and still is planted to divide the land into fields.

May blossom is thick and creamy on the branches, with a heady scent which at various times has been associated with sex or death. Suffice it to say it has a musky, fleshy smell.

It carries all sorts of ancient mythology, being the tree of the Celtic female spirit, so was said to be unlucky in Protestant England. They were wilier in Catholic Ireland and turned it into the tree of the Virgin Mary, so it was much liked.

St Kenelm, of Romsley, was one of the saints whose story includes a magical hawthorn tree. More important nowadays, though, is that its ribbons of blossom form a wonderful corridor for insects – bees love it.

Later the berries give food to flocks of birds in autumn, especially visiting redwings in cold weather.

There is an older kind of hawthorn called Midland hawthorn, which is uncommon but does appear around here. Mostly you wouldn’t notice the difference, but it comes out into flower earlier and has a slightly glossier, darker-green leaf.

Other variants include the Glastonbury thorn, which flowers really early, sometimes in winter. Along the sides of modern roads like motorways and bypasses there are lots of planted hawthorns, but some of them are a European variety, not our common one. These, too, flower early.   

Horse chestnuts add to the creaminess of May, with their towering spikes of blossom, pink-tinged. It’s worth getting close enough to smell them, as they have a heady scent too. The leaves open from their sticky buds in March or early April, with the flower buds folded in them.

Our horse chestnuts in The Meadows in Alvechurch took a heavy blow from Storm Doris earlier in the year, as well as being affected by disease and fungus, but I hope they will still have their great blossom time in May for the Picnic in the Park.

If you want to see the variety of colour in May, head for a meadow. Eades Meadow is beautiful at this time. People do get confused about what a meadow is, and you often hear people talking about “planting a flower meadow” when they mean scattering annual seeds from a packet.

A meadow is the product of decades or even centuries of habitat development. It has undisturbed soil, often quite wet, giving a diversity of local grasses and perennial plants. It is unlikely to have much in the way of annual plants like poppies.

It is mown once a year (originally for hay) and usually grazed by cattle in the winter. You may see different plants in different parts, depending on how wet it is and where old or remaining hedges and tree lines are.

Meadows need management, which can be part of farming, not just of conservation. One of our local farmers, Adrian Bytom, is a specialist in this.

Eades Meadow in May has a predominantly purple and gold colour. The purple is from the green-winged orchids, for which this field is known nationally.

These have an amazing variety of colour from white through pink to deep purple. They are quite rare now, but abundant in this habitat. Another orchid, the duller-coloured twayblade, also flowers in May.

The gold is mostly from cowslips. They are strong in May while the grass is relatively short. Related to primroses, they have a deeper yellow colour and a faint sweet smell.

They also grow really well on roadside banks, so long as these aren’t mown in spring, and many of our motorways have them at the sides. The name is comical because it comes from “cow-slop” or cow-pat, which no doubt helps them grow but isn’t exactly pretty!

Along with these in a May meadow you will find bluebells, vetches and bugles, giving a blue-purple colour, with yellow-rattle, bird’s-foot trefoil and buttercups adding to the gold. These will be meadow buttercups, the tall, slightly paler kind, not the darker, shorter creeping buttercup.

Buttercups survive in less biodiverse pasture too, and many of the “ordinary” fields around here become full of creeping and meadow buttercups in late May.

Unfortunately they are not good food for cattle, unlike most of the other meadow species which add to the nutritional value of the sward. 

Less colourful but equally useful and beautiful flowers also thrive in meadows. Cow parsley will be there around the trees and hedges, and its smaller relative, pignut, growing in the short grass.

Large white moon daisies will be scattered about the field. Tall, reddish sorrel is lovely – and edible – at this time of year.

As the months go by through the summer these May flowers in Eades fade and are replaced by others, right through to September. By the end of May the common spotted orchids will be replacing the green-winged ones, for example.

So these meadows are full of insects, including bees, butterflies and moths. The may blossom around its hedges links it up with other blossoming places, helping the insects to forage. Birds are frequent, and I have heard the cuckoo here several years.

If you can’t make it to a meadow, look along the banks of small roads and hope they haven’t been mowed. That combination of bluebells, bugle, campion, vetch and stitchwort makes them red, white, and blue.

Anywhere that used to be old woodland may also have yellow archangel, a gorgeous flower related to white dead-nettle, which grows in the hedge and by the towpath near me.

And visit woods now before the leaves close over and the flowers disappear. Any old native woodland will be full of flower and scent at your feet and over your head. It’s such a lush and lovely time of year. 

This poem I wrote last year at Whitsun, a Christian festival which usually happens in May (though it’s just in June this year!) and used to be the bank holiday. Traditionally it took on some of the ancient May Day celebrations, with everyone wearing new clothes and walking through the countryside.

Whitsun
From my bed, I see a hilltop woodland
Winter mornings the sun comes up through it
The stark twigs become defined, and make shapes
There’s a bush like a walking elephant, then
A perfectly round hole through the trees
Leading to who knows what other world.
I watch these on cold mornings, dreaming warm.
Today the gaps have closed, the elephant
Disappeared in a froth of green oak, hawthorn
And feathery ash, and the apple blossom
Splashes it pink and white. May is no time
For dreaming, no time for a visiting spirit
But for real life: birth, love and death,
To dance in this world and forget the next.


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