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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

White on green

Posted on January 30 2017 at 3:21:08 0 comments

Snowdrops

Mary Green explores the colours and traditions of February.

February is usually a greener month, and the colours you see are usually white on green. Of course, in this unpredictable climate it can easily be little flecks of green on white snow.

But as I walk the footpaths, canals and fields in February, I am on the lookout for green and white.

Already as I write this in January I can see the new leaves of cow parsley everywhere. These are often the first to show in any number, bright green and feathery.

They are edible, tasting like cultivated parsley, but you do need to make sure they are cow parsley! This is in the same family as several poisonous plants, so children were traditionally taught to avoid eating it.

However, it is really the only one that appears this early. The white flowers don’t come till months later.

Bulb leaves appear in January and February, the first of course being the snowdrop. By February this should be well in flower. Snowdrops used to be called Candlemas bells. Candlemas is on February 2, a Christian festival based a day after the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc on February 1, the festival of Brigid.

Brigid was one of three forms of the mother goddess in Celtic tradition, and took over at Imbolc from the darker, older incarnation who had ruled the winter. Imbolc is also St Brigid’s Day; Brigid or Bridget being a Christian saint, linked with the Celtic figure.

Snowdrops are associated with this date in both traditions. Both Brigid and St Brigid are also associated with fire and candles.

The significance of the date is that it is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and therefore marks the start of spring. One of the traditions was that it was also the true end of the Christmas period, when you could safely take down greenery and burn it in the Candlemas flame.

It was also in some traditions the time when you could start making love again, after a period of abstinence through Advent and Christmas. Advent was originally a fast (no chocolates in calendars!) thought this has been lost over the years.

The rather strange superstition that you had to wait so long after Christmas, which of course was a feast, was probably based on the practical reason that you didn’t want babies born at harvest time when everybody was needed in the fields.

With abstinence also required during Lent, which starts in late February or early March, it didn’t give you much time! However, it does reinforce the ancient fertility aspect of this early start to spring.

Probably the success of St Valentine’s Day on February 14 is due to its being established during this time.

The wassailing or blessing of apple trees in February is also a fertility custom. It was believed that birds mated on St Valentine’s Day, and many do start at this time.

When Christianity took over the Imbolc festival as Candlemas, it was the commemoration of the Churching of Mary. Churching was the ceremony by which women returned to society after a period of protection after giving birth – once more a return from a period of abstinence.

In Irish legend, St Brigid was a helper of Mary. She had helped Mary and Joseph escape from Herod’s soldiers, and now helped her get to the temple with the baby for purification.

Both times she did this by distracting people by dancing before them with a fiery crown of candles. As a reward, Mary gave her the eve of Candlemas as her day, though really of course Brigid’s Day had been there long before Candlemas!

You may have seen St Brigid’s crosses woven out of reeds, commemorating her day. Brigid’s colours are traditionally green and white.

More prosaically, Candlemas was a time of lengthening days when you didn’t need your candles during the day any more, so you could dedicate a few in church to mark the returning light. It was when you could feed animals by daylight again, another reminder of how the farming year is matched by the traditional and religious rhythms of the year’s festivals.

So when the green-and-white snowdrops appear, it is a good time to look for other signs of spring. Another early green leaf is dog’s mercury, growing at the bottom of hedges. This even has a green flower, not very noticeable or pretty.

As I mentioned last month, there are still few insects about so plants don’t bother to have much colour in their flowers. Dog’s mercury is poisonous but is worth looking out for as a marker of old woodland as well as a sign of spring.

If the year has not been too cold, some white blossoms should have appeared on trees. The first is the cherry plum, which usually begins to flower in February. Last year the weather was so mild that it began at Christmas, but in some colder recent years it hasn’t appeared until March.

The best place to catch it here is in the lower end of St Laurence churchyard in Alvechurch, where there is plenty in the hedge.

It also grows well in Alvechurch along Old Rectory Lane, and on the Birmingham Road beyond Hopwood, off Birches Lane, and, of course, round the Redditch Ring Road, my favourite site for spring tree blossoms.

Last year cherry plum didn’t set fruit very well in some places, because it flowered too early and then got caught by frost. So I hope it is only just coming out in February this year.

For such a common tree, it is remarkably little known, but you will have seen it! It can grow quite tall, a graceful tree with starry, thinly-spread white flowers. The leaves follow the flowers, so you begin to get some green soon.

One reason for the lack of recognition of cherry plum is that people confuse it with blackthorn. This was flowering in February last year, though you sometimes have to wait till March. It is quite different from cherry plum. It is a small, dark, very prickly bush, often clipped back in hedges.

The white flowers grow very thickly and are smaller than cherry plum. They grow on the bare branches and the leaves come later, so this one is very black-and-white.

If we’re lucky, by the end of February the landscape will be transformed by lines of white blackthorn along the hedges and canalsides. 

However, we will need to watch out for the phenomenon called the “blackthorn winter.” This is a period of cold, frosty or even snowy weather that comes after the mild spring-like weather that has made the blackthorn bloom.

This happened last year, and led to a very uneven crop of sloes: good where there was protection but poor where the bushes had been caught by frost.

It is a similar idea to the one behind Candlemas and its revival as Groundhog Day. If the weather is fine and mild on this day, winter will come back and bite you. It reflects a common weather pattern!

You should also spot the white catkins of pussy-willow in February, on bare branches, before they get their pollen and turn yellow.

Our most common hedgerow bush is the hawthorn, which won’t be flowering for several months yet. So you can’t really confuse this with blackthorn. However, hawthorn also comes into its own in February, as it is one of the first trees to come into leaf.

The leaves are bright green and shaped a bit like small oak leaves, and they often appear in mid-February. They are highly edible and used to be eaten a lot, especially by children, having the traditional name of “poor man’s bread and cheese”.

It’s hard to imagine how wonderful these green leaves must have tasted in the days when you didn’t get any fresh greenery all winter.

Cow parsley and hawthorn aren’t the only green things you can eat now. Under the hedges you will find young goose-grass, also known as cleavers.

This becomes that annoying plant that children stick on to each other’s clothing, and which is reputed to have provided the idea to the inventor of Velcro. It isn’t really sticky, of course – it is covered with tiny hooks.

But when young it is not so rough, and is wonderful stir-fried. Later it will have tiny white flowers.

You can also find the leaves of garlic mustard, also known as Jack-by-the-hedge. These are rounded and crinkle-edged, and again will later have clusters of small white flowers.

They are unmissable if you pick them and crush them, with their characteristic garlic smell, although they are in the mustard family. One of the nice rules of foraging is that anything that tastes of garlic is edible!

In a mild year you may find true garlic leaves too. These are typical bulb leaves, quite wide and light green, with a lovely taste. These grow in the Meadows in the older woodland parts, though you shouldn’t pick them there as it’s a local wildlife site.

They are common elsewhere in woodland or under hedges where there used to be woodland. Again, the bell-like white flowers follow later. You can also find and eat ground-elder leaves, bittercress and white dead-nettle, and even daisies – all in the green and white.

I am always pleased to notice that wild edible greens are available very early in the year, before most garden crops are ready. However, this is the time to start your potatoes chitting, ready for planting on Good Friday!

In the hedges, the bird you will notice most at this time is the chaffinch. This is a striking bird with pink and slate-blue among its colours. It starts singing its distinctive territorial and mating song in the middle of February, often around St Valentine’s Day.

To me this is always a mark of the start of spring. Groups of long-tailed-tits are often around in February too, and the thrushes and blackbirds will be trying out their spring songs. All the birds are colourful now, so there is a break from green and white if you want one!

At the end of the month, this year, comes Shrove Tuesday, with another spring celebration. By that time, the colours will have changed. At some point in February, on a warm day, queen bees will start to emerge from their winter hiding places, and flowers will start to become colourful.

I achieved my goal last year of writing a poem every day. Here is one of them from last February. This year the gypsies were just leaving as I passed by in January. 

The roundabouts of Redditch
The roundabouts of Redditch are famous
For nerdy followers of their ugliness
No one expects them to be things of beauty
But suddenly they are. The cherry plum
Lights up dark branches and the hawthorn leaves
Begin to greenwash them, and hazel catkins
Swing loose and lush and yellow in the wind.
Soon they will be full of blackthorn and cherry
Then hawthorn, and driving then is pleasure.
Just when you’ve forgotten all this clarity
In the ordinariness of summer green
Autumn comes and the trees flame and glow
And passing Redditch is a joy again.
Come Christmas, the real gypsies arrive
With their proper hooped wagons (not the kind
That people swear about on Facebook)
And make the roundabouts their home
Keeping them warm while the buds form
Inside the dark branches for next year.


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