Cudgels and Clouts

Originally published May 2012

Hello everyone! At last we have had our long awaited rain with the coming of our traditional April showers. Does this mean that the seasons are finally giving Ma Nature a chance to catch up and put her house in order? We can only wait and see! Sitting here watching the steady drizzle permeating into the thirsty earth (at least in those areas not concreted over!) I can picture the roots of plants, great and small, siphoning up molecules of water and soluble nutrients to swell millions of microscopic cells; each one an individual, botanical building block.

Publication2This month I am going to continue the theme of all things sharp and spiky with two of our most common trees, Blackthorn or Sloe (Prunus spinosa) and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). These trees are familiar to us as part of the scrub habitat that is often present where land has been previously managed. Quarry Wood is a fine example of an area that has been left to colonise naturally once anthropic activity, in the form of mining for stone and the presence of the railway, ceased. Just like the prickly star of my last ramble, Blackberry, both species belong to the Family Rosaceae. However unlike the tenacious Bramble, with its elegantly recurved thorns designed to ensnare unwary conservationists, the weaponry of these woodland beauties consists of hundreds of needle-sharp, modified stems whose raison d’être is to cause pain and repel. Sloe (from the Old English Slãh and Old Middle German Slẽ) is the first of the thorn trees to flower, as clouds of creamy blossom cascade down through wood and hedgerow; the dark, barbed branches lie hidden like a wickedly-armed company of Pikemen laying in wait to savage the enemy cavalry. The shrub is such an effective barrier that it has been used for centuries in Britain and Northern Europe as a way of making hedges cattle-proof. The plant spreads via fast growing suckers to form an impenetrable thicket. Even the fruit does not entice one to risk ‘death of a thousand cuts’ for a tasty snack al fresco. The bitter taste is only assuaged after the fruit has been steeped in gin and sugar for several months, or even years. Nevertheless, even this does not seem to increase its palatability, as the common practice is to discard the berries and drink the gin!

Blackthorn wood polishes up well and has been utilised by the army and craftsmen alike in the making of canes, swagger sticks and tool handles. A whole sector of the Irish tourist industry relies on the plant for the vast array of Shillelaghs (Irish cudgels) found in craft shops throughout the country. Traditionally, the wood was cured by smearing it in butter and placing it up the chimney; giving it the characteristic black sheen. However, during my various perambulations around Ireland I have noticed that many of them in the tourist shops are actually painted black; presumably by people who only have central heating, or maybe just fans of the Rolling Stones!

Ecologically the shrub is important as a site for birds to build well-protected nests. Blackbirds and Finches are among the several species to take advantage of the plant’s defence system in what is perhaps another case of ecological mutualism. A whole raft of insects and invertebrates live on and around the shrub, and not all will be beneficial to the plant. Having birds in close proximity may well keep the number of harmful species down.

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The second of our thorn trees, Hawthorn, is as effective a hedging plant as its early flowering cousin and, like the Sloe, is extremely valuable ecologically. Many phytophagous (plant eating) insects are specific to a plant Family. A substantial number of them, such as the larvae of the small moth Batrachedra curvilineella, are monophagous and feed exclusively on Crataegus sp.

The plant is deeply entrenched in country lore and mythology and the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Nordic people, Celts, Chinese, Herbalists and followers of Wicca all had much to say about one or more of the many hundred of Hawthorn species found around the world. However, as we live in the sunny (!) South East of England we can allow ourselves to concentrate on local associations between the tree and the merry month of May. The tree has long been used for decorative purposes at this time of year, especially for the Festival of Beltane on May 1st and the imminent arrival of summer. green-manGo to Hastings for the Jack in the Green festival and you will see images of the Green Man surrounded by Hawthorn leaves; a heady mix of fertility, marriage and new life. Conversely, the plant has long been associated with death and decay. The chemical Trimethylamine, present in the blossom, is also formed when animal tissue breaks down and Mediaeval folk likened the distinctive fishy odour of the flower to that of the Great Plague and on account would allow it in the house. Truly a plant reminiscent of both the May Pole and the sepulchre!

How about the clouts, I hear you cry! Well, it is the turn of the older generation to outwit the youngsters this month as they recite the old adage “ne’er cast a clout till May be out”; a clout being an archaic word for a fragment of cloth. It is a moot point as to whether it refers to not removing your Winter clothing until the month of May is over or until the May (another name for Hawthorn) blossom is out. Looking out of the window on this wet and blustery April day, I think I will wait a while yet!

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Sounds perfick, Will!
As always the ‘put me right’ address is pjcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson

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