Having a Blackthorn Winter?

 

The first trees are beginning to bloom in the Cotswolds; in a few days’ they will be billowing clouds of white blossom.  My father, a countryman through and through, would always mark the occasion by repeating the old English warning of a coming “blackthorn winter” and “the cold blow” ahead.  But was he correct?

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The blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), also commonly known as sloe, is frequently used as a hedging plant where its tangled and viciously thorny branches make an impenetrable, stock-proof barrier.  When left untrimmed it grows into a small tree.blackthorn-blossoms-crowd-an-old-cotswold-green-lane-copyright

I haven’t found a referral to the earliest date for a blackthorn winter but it almost certainly goes back centuries for the blackthorn is a ‘magick’ tree and often used in witchcraft.  But can it really dictate the weather?  Common sense says ‘no’ unless, of course you believe in magick.

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Pretty flowers hide vicious thorns

There appears to be a problem with my father’s and others belief in the blackthorn winter.  The tree that blooms first and so often referred to is not blackthorn but the cherry plum, another Prunus – Prunus cerasifera.  Sometimes known as the Myrobalan Plum, it is also found in hedgerows and when allowed to grow to full height is often covered in red or golden cherry-sized, edible fruits.  It was introduced from southern Europe about three hundred years ago.

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Prunus cerasifera, the Cherry or Myrobalan Plum

So, blackthorn or cherry plum?  For the time being we will be having a “cherry plum winter”.  The sloe will blossom in about three weeks’ time when we will probably have the blackthorn winter too for one thing is proven: in England, we are far more likely to have a spell of wintry weather now than we ever are in December.  Either way, let us hope that it is a good year for both trees for then we can look forward to cherry plum pies washed down with a nice glass of sloe gin.

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Cherry Plums

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Sloe Berries

Footnote:  according to the British Meteorological Office, the term “blackthorn winter” originated in the Thames Valley, the birthplace of my father and where I was brought up.  It will be interesting to know many of you use the term and where in the world you are located.

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The Year in Review: July – December 2016

The second half of 2016 went just as quickly, if not quicker than the first.  No sooner have the nights drawn out than Midsummer Day is upon us and, gradually at first – and then rapidly – the nights close in on us.  In England our really warm summer weather does not arrive before July and with luck extends well into October.  In bad years it never really arrives at all. blewbury-manor-copyright

In July I travelled just about as far west as is possible in the UK for a few days holiday in Cornwall.  Cornwall is a land of contrasts with picturesque, small fishing villages, spectacular cliff walks and golden, sandy beaches.  Inland, the scenery is bleak moorland with granite outcrops and the houses  appear to squat low in the landscape to shelter from the gales that sweep in off the Atlantic.  Luckily, the evening we went to the Minack Theatre was warm with only the lightest of sea breezes.  Lucky because the theatre is carved into the cliff face.  The idea of Rowena Cade, in the 1930s she and her gardener spent a winter moving rocks and to create a stage and seating.  This Herculean effort was more than worthwhile, it was… well, click here to see for yourself.169   copyright172   copyright

August saw me on the other side of Atlantic Ocean in the American State of Arizona visiting another cliff-face achievement, the Canyon de Chelly.  The houses of the Anasazi people were carved out of the sheer rock face hundreds of years ago and can only be reached by precarious toeholds.  Today it is the home of the Navajo.  The canyon is unique amongst the National Parks of America for it is the only one that is… check this link to find out what.Canyon de Chelly (3)   copyrightCanyon de Chelly (5)   copyright

There is nothing like a bit of bragging and September saw me unashamedly showing off about the small lake I created some years back.  These days, it looks as if it has been there forever and is home to numerous wild duck, fish and small mammals.  Originally a rubbish dump click here to see how it has been transformed.pond-build-3-copyrightpond-2-copyright

I am always telling you how beautiful our Cotswold Hills are and how lucky I am to live in the middle of the secret valley, away from traffic and houses.  In October, I took you all on a virtual tour of the valley.  The crab-apple tree lined lane leads to the wonderfully winding river that features on the blog header. After a mile of visual treats the lane narrows even more as it passes our tiny, stone cottage.  Occasionally, there is a traffic jam – but rarely by cars.  To take the tour again click here.secret-valley-2-copyrightcotswold-traffic-jam-copyright

In November we went treasure hunting – looking for fortune in the garden.  We didn’t have to dig it all up, only walk around it for we were searching for plants originating in China and Japan.  The little-known story of how Robert Fortune, a 19th century dour Scotsman travelled to the for side of the world to fight with pirates before smuggling out what has become one of our most popular drinks is told here.dicentra-spectabilis-copyrighttea-plantation-copyright

Travels  and ancient buildings in Sweden and the south of France, hidden Exmoor, and attracting butterflies to your garden all featured in December‘s review.  If that all sounds too exhausting, take a slow, slow canal longboat ride through the stunning scenery that can be found within a few miles of the university city of Oxford (here).133   copyright

2017 is seeing a lot of changes politically and culturally both here in Britain, in the USA and elsewhere in the world.  Some can’t wait for what will happen and others are dreading it.  Whichever ‘side’ you’re on, come and escape to Life in the English Cotswolds and the secret valley which will always be, hopefully, a little haven of peace.dorn-valley-copyright

Best wishes for 2017 and many thanks for your post -and future – support.

Respect Your Elders

Of all trees few can be held in as much contempt as our native elder, Sambucus nigra.  It grows almost anywhere and in such profusion that it is dismissed as a ‘weed’ and it is true that its habit of self-sowing and growing through treasured garden plants can be a nuisance.  Despite all of this, however, it is also one of the most useful of plants both in the wild and the shrub border.

This variegated form of Elder is very useful for brightening up a shady place
 
Search any hedgerow and the Elder can be found.  It is easily identified, even in mid-winter, for its bark is dull, dry and scaly, with prominent pairs of leaf buds; these are some of the earliest to open in the spring.  Young leaves can even be found during mild spells in the winter although these are replaced if damaged by frost.  Perhaps the simplest way to identify a leafless plant is to break off a stem for the centre is hollow and filled with whitish pith. Generations of country children hollow out these stems to create ‘cigarettes’ to smoke; in fact I can claim only to have smoked elder – and that stopped once a spark burnt the back of my throat!

Perhaps the glory of Elder comes in spring when the trees burst into flower. Large, flat heads (corymbs), consisting of hundreds of tiny scented flowers smother the plants and for a short while the countryside carries their pungent odour.  These have traditionally been the first crop to be harvested, their flowers steeped in water to make Elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’, these days now sold commercially. Elderflowers can be used dried in herbal teas or, when fresh, swirled in a light batter and dropped into hot oil to make delicious and unusual fritters.  Adding the flowers to stewed gooseberries or when making jam is a very old method of counterbalancing the tartness of the fruit.
Within weeks the flowers which were held upright will have faded and drooped as berries form.  Even when green, streaks of colour hint of their ripeness to come.  By late summer, the clusters have turned almost black and make a welcome addition to fruit pies or, used on their own, in jam and wine making.
The medicinal uses for Elder are equally varied.  According to the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy all parts of the plant can be used: roots for kidney problems; bark against epilepsy and the leaves, when mixed with geranium and garlic, to soothe eczema and rashes.  The flowers and berries are used for relief of coughs and colds and it has also been claimed that the flowers can restore blindness.  As with all herbal treatments caution and common sense should be used – I’m not brave enough to suggest that you try any of them out!
The dark berries  of the elder – the red ones are hawthorn
For a tree with so many uses that has been part of country lore for so long it is not surprising to find it has many names.  A widespread alternative is Judas Tree for tradition states that it was the Elder that Judas Iscariot hung himself from.  It is from a derivation of the name Judas that Jew’s Ears fungus which commonly grows on elder gets its common name.