Every season has its attractions, but none stirs such deep emotions as the arrival of spring, when the first hedgerow blossoms appear. It may be related to the way in which the stimuli that trigger bud burst – lengthening days and warmth of the sun – give us such a sense of wellbeing.
The sights of unfurling foliage, the scents of flowers and the return of birds and insects whose lives are intertwined with them are reminders that we too have emerged safely from another winter, giving us the impression that we are reborn and that the world is alive with new possibilities.
But perhaps it’s also deeply rooted in more pragmatic human instincts for survival. For our forebears, the billowing blossom would have brought relief and reassurance that the forest products they depended on – fruits, nuts, leaves for animal fodder and new woody growth for everyday use – would surely follow.
We no longer need to forage to survive or rely on hedgerow herbal potions as our only source of medicines, but perhaps some echoes of that ancient urge to gather are still reawakened by the sight of branches weighed down with swags of blossom.
It’s hardly surprising that a seasonal spectacle stimulating such visceral emotions and providing for the basic needs of rural communities has bequeathed a rich legacy of folklore. A walk along a hedgerow or woodland edge in spring is one where every flower tells a story. So here are 12 woody harbingers of spring, laden with blossom and mystical beliefs, regional dialect names and ancient uses...
1. Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna
Other names: Quickthorn, whitethorn, may.
When and where: May; hedgerows and isolated trees.
Hawthorn hedges have formed enclosure boundaries since Roman times and the species has gathered millennia of folklore and superstition. Winter-flowering Glastonbury Thorn is said to be descended from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff, which rooted and burst into flower on the Isle of Avalon. In Ireland, hawthorn trees are said to be fairies’ trysting places. Bringing flowering branches indoors is believed by some to bring bad luck, perhaps due to their unpleasant scent, described by the poet Walter de la Mare as ‘a deathly smell’. Isolated hawthorns grow into gnarled trees, full of character, and the species is the ‘thorn’ of many place names.
2. Wild cherry Prunus avium
Other names Gean, mazzard.
When and where April to May; woodlands and copses.
A confetti-like layer of petals on the ground is a sign of a wild mature cherry flowering in the canopy above, but young hedgerow trees also flower well when less that 10 years old. The most spectacular displays of blossom are on woodland edges, where low-hanging branches were once cut to decorate churches. The sweetly scented flowers are self-sterile so need bee cross-pollination to produce fruit, the flavour of which is very variable. Cut branches exude sweet sap that solidifies and was used as chewing gum. The native tree is the ancestor of the sweet cherry, whose cultivation was encouraged by Henry VIII.
3. Blackthorn Prunus spinosa
Other names Sloe.
When and where March to April; hedgerows.
Blackthorn flowers are densely clustered, so hedges covered in its blossom sometimes seem from a distance to be covered in a light fall of snow. It often blooms at the time when northerly winds bring bitterly cold weather with real snow, a period known to generations of country people as a ‘blackthorn winter’. This may explain why sloe crops can be unpredictable – when cold weather prevents the bee activity that is essential for fruit production, there will be slim pickings for sloe gin fans in autumn. New spring foliage, picked and dried, was used to adulterate tea in Victorian times.
4. Crab Apple Malus sylvestris
Other names: Cultivated apple (Malus domestica).
When and where: Mid to late May; hedgerows, copses.
Genuine crab apple is an uncommon native, venerated by druids because it was the host of magical mistletoe. It has breathtakingly bitter fruits, only suitable for making vinegar-like verjuice, but village hedgerows and byways are often full of the pink-tinged blossom of cultivated apples that have sprouted from discarded cores. Old feral trees that produce good fruit would once have been valued as a communal resource, even subject to the ritual of wassailing. Pomatum, a country cosmetic, was made from crab apple pulp, lard and rose water.
5. Wild pear Pyrus pyraster
When and where From late March; trees in hedgerows.
Probably introduced by the Romans, wild pear has small, inedible fruits. Its fragrant blossom opens before the leaves expand and is carried in upright clusters, attracting bee pollinators. The cultivated pear Pyrus communis lacks the spines of the wild species; feral seedlings from tossed cores tend to revert to bearing poor fruit. Mature trees have a pyramidal shape and can live for 200 years. Hard close-grained pear wood is loved by wood carvers.
6. Sallow Salix caprea
Other names Goat willow, pussy willow.
When and where March to April; hedges, wood edges.
Gathering male twigs as ‘palms’ on Palm Sunday is an old country tradition. In March, silver male catkins swell out of their bud scales and turn gold as their stamens elongate. Female trees have spiky green catkins but both sexes produce nectar, attracting bees, butterflies and blue tits. As one of its names suggests, goats like to eat the catkins. Willow bark infusions contain salicylic acid, the active compound in aspirin, and are an old remedy for aches and pains.
7. Hazel Corylus avellana
Other names Lamb’s tails.
When and where January to April; hedges and coppices.
One of the first blossoms to appear on bare twigs in spring. Old coppices, cut on a 7-10 year rotation for harvesting small wood, produce fine catkins displays. The nut crop depends on pollen carried on the wind to tiny carmine female flowers. A heavy nut crop can be stored for months if squirrels, nuthatches and dormice don’t reach them first. Coppiced hazel was used to make everything from pea sticks to poles for wattle and daub walls, and for pegging down thatch. Diviners use forked twigs to locate groundwater.
8. Rowan Sorbus aucuparia
Other names Mountain ash, quickbeam, witchen, cuirn.
When and where May; hedges, wood edges, solitary trees.
Few native trees are so richly endowed with folklore. Flowering rowans were planted beside cottage doors on May Day to prevent visits by witches, while crosses made from twigs were hung over doors on the Isle of Man. Scottish shepherds drove flocks through a circle of rowans to protect them from spells. The flat blossoms are composed of numerous tiny flowers with a musty scent that attracts pollinating flies. An exceptionally hardy tree, growing in mountain crags at higher altitudes than any other tree in Scotland.
Subscribe to BBC Countryfile Magazine today and you can enjoy generous savings from the shop price plus, free UK delivery and discounts off special editions and back issues.