Anyone up for gathering nuts in May? Not even Squirrels! Like so many country songs, the words have been confused over the years, probably since before the seventeen hundreds. Apart from being a game of choosing partners – like “Here we go round the mulberry bush” – it’s probably about gathering ‘knots’ of May blossom. This year hawthorn blossom seems likely to be particularly abundant (judging by the early proliferation of Blackthorn flowers foretelling good prospects for Sloe Gin!) which could mean there’ll be a good harvest this year. That might explain why hawthorn blossom was thought to be lucky until, in the eighteenth century, superstition about magic and witchcraft began to be seen as the foolish beliefs of ‘uneducated country-people’ and no longer credited by more sophisticated city and town dwellers.
Some trees have strong associations with magic, and even today it’s common to say it’s bad luck to ‘tempt fate’ by cutting down particular trees which grow wild in our hedgerows. Hawthorn and Blackthorn are certainly considered to be representative of sacrifice and protection. Mountain Ash (Rowan) is known as ‘Witchwood’ to some local dialect speakers. To cut down Elder is said to risk welcoming the Devil, because ‘Old Nick’ is traditionally thought to fear the tree.
Of course, there are trees we think are extremely beneficial. There are songs about them too. The Oak and the Ash and ‘the bonny Ivy Tree’ are mentioned in a folk song about a ‘North-Country Maid’ who is far from home. Some trees are seasonal as much as regional, so we sing about the Holly and the Ivy in midwinter. But we’re seeing them attacked by the changes in seasons and how human beings move plants and animals around the world, both deliberately and inadvertently.
There was dismay when Elm Bark Beetles started to spread ‘Dutch Elm Disease’ in the UK about fifty years ago. Elm was a good furniture timber and was often used to make the contoured seats of Windsor chairs, but very quickly all but a few disease-resistant Elm trees in Britain had to be felled and burned. It was an arboreal example of problems which have affected farmed animals for centuries.
Then there’s Ash Dieback. A fungus which struck British Ash trees in the first decade of the 21st century. Ash was used to make the timber frames of sports cars and gave us ‘The Ash Grove’ – a song which rugby players will forever remember with nostalgia. Especially in these days of political correctness.
We still have the oak, of course. A tree often adopted as a symbol of English patriotic pride. There are many varieties of oak, found throughout Europe, Asia and the continents of North and South America. Just as it used to be said that the Sun never set on the British Empire, so it could be said that it never set on the family of oak trees. It’s probably national vanity which makes us think of oak as peculiarly British. Another song proclaimed; “Hearts of oak are our ships!” and we probably scoff at Rome’s galleys and Viking Longships as being of inferior timber. And because they’re useful to keep Gin safely in the bottle, we probably forgive Cork oaks for being mostly Portuguese.
Here we go gathering nuts in May ends with; ‘all on a frosty morning.’ For the sake of our energy bills, let’s hope for no more of those for a while. We should be able to shed our thermal underwear. The saying: “Ne’er cast a clout till May is out” doesn’t mean we must wait until June for warmer weather, but really tells us it’s safe to throw off a layer of clothing when Hawthorn blossom blooms.
And shall June bust out all over?
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