With the world shut down around us the uplifting role that wildlife plays in our lives becomes more vital than ever. So, for my own sanity as much as anything, I’m going to keep a daily diary of what I find around my garden. Photograph the wildlife you can see from your window or in your garden and post your pictures on the ‘Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Table’ page.
You used to be able to set your calendar by it. Around the first day of May our ancestors would step outside to find foamy white clouds erupting across the Sussex countryside; the Hawthorn was blooming and spring was turning to summer. The sight was so visually stunning and so linked with the arrival of May that Hawthorn was named after the month in which it blooms. Hawthorn was commonly called the May-tree (the name Hawthorn is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hagathorn’ from ‘haga’ meaning hedge).
My garden Hawthorn about to bloom on 25 April.
Unlike the impetuous Blackthorn which flowers in March before it’s even bothered to grow leaves (see my diary for Day 13 here), the Hawthorn is more dignified. It waits until it has clothed itself in undergarments of lobed leaves before it dons a resplendent gown of exquisite white flowers. This stunning costume and perfect timing meant Hawthorn took centre stage at May Day celebrations where it partied with Green Men, Morris Dancers, Maypoles and May Queens. The song ‘Gathering nuts in May’ actually refers to ‘gathering knots of May’, collecting Hawthorn branches to make May Day garlands and decorations.
My garden Hawthorn coming into bloom on 28 April.
Then, in the middle of the eighteenth century, tragedy struck for the May-tree / Hawthorn.
I don’t know about you but I get thrown into disarray twice a year when the clocks go forward / back by an hour. My life would have gone into meltdown in 1752, as our whole calendar changed from Julian to Gregorian and the clocks went back an entire 11 days. In this new timeline Hawthorn now found itself late for the party. It still bloomed at its usual time but now the new calendar had relegated it to the middle of the month.
It wasn’t the first time Hawthorn had been cast aside. Superstitions dictated that bringing Hawthorn indoors led to misfortune – even death. This could stem from the fact that Hawthorn blooms release trimethylamine which gives the flowers that unpleasant smell which has been likened to cats' wee and attracts pollinating insects. I planted some Hawthorn in my 'native hedge' a few years ago and I went and had a sniff at the flowers this morning. I must admit I haven't smelt too much cat's wee in my time, but if that's what it smells like, it is truly horrible (I also almost managed to snort up a bumblebee that I didn't see nectaring in the flowers. That could have been interesting). Trimethylamine is also a chemical formed in decaying tissue and it reminded people of the smell of the Black Death – and nobody wanted to be reminded of that. Fair enough. I'm not going to be want to be reminded of this pandemic either.
Hawthorn folklore still continues into the modern age. I remember at primary school being taught by an aged teacher ‘Ne’re cast a clout ‘til May is out’. I translated her gibberish into the fact that you should keep your warm clothes on until the end of the month of May. I’ve only just discovered that the ‘May is out’ in the phrase refers to Hawthorn blooming. In 2020 I casted my clouts at the start of April during that lovely weather and now I have had to dig them back out of the cupboard again. So maybe there's something in it.
The world has changed since I was a nipper – we’re warming up. For a temperature sensitive plant like Hawthorn the blooming times they are a-changin’. Hawthorn is responding to a changing climate. It now blooms up to two weeks earlier than it did just three decades ago. These days you'll see Hawthorn blooming again in its rightful place around May Day, although it is more commonly seen flowering at the end of April.
My Hawthorn in bloom on 1 May.
It looks like the weather is hotting up from now on. So, now that the May-tree is out, get yer clouts off, get out for your socially-distanced, state-approved, daily exercise and welcome the return of the real May Queen.
And to play us out here's a tribute to another Plant (and his mates) and the only song I know about hedgerows and May Queens. (here).
Have a good weekend folks.