For the past month, I’ve been focusing on the practice of phenology, with the students enrolled in my Year of Flowers class. Phenology is the practice of tracking seasonal changes in nature. Phenology pretends to be a science, but I think it’s really an art, and an art closely allied to poetry.
Change is always happening in nature, and it happens gradually. But in order to accurately annotate when change occurs, phenologists have to pinpoint the change (called a phenophase) to a particular moment in time. The data must also be attached to a particular place. At Project Budburst, where I am making reports on five plants I have chosen to observe over the year, I must name each location and provide latitude and longitude, plus details of the site where the plant grows (shading, irrigation, habitat, etc.) .)
If you want to see a truly wonderful visual example of this go to Nature’s Calendar, the British phenological site, and click on Maps. Here’s a direct link to the snowdrop map , one of my favorites. When the map is fully loaded, click on the little bar that displays two red arrows at the top of the blank graph and slide it to the right, to watch the snowdrops burst into blossom all over the United Kingdom.
The language of phenology is as delightful as it is precise. For instance, budburst is defined as the date when the widest part of the newly emerging leaf has grown beyond the ends of its opening winter bud scales. Or (at another web site) the date when the protective scale coating is shed from the bud exposing tender new growth tissues of one or more flower buds or leaves. First bloom (for most flowers) occurs when the petals are open enough so you can see the stamens inside. In plants that have catkins or cones, first flower occurs when the plant starts disseminating its yellow pollen. Other markers such as full flower and full leaf are indicated by percentages: full leaf means 90% of all the leaves on the plant are open, while full flower requires less of a show: only 50%.
These measurements help create a standard process that can be easily quantified and thus easily reported but end up omitting the true sensory experience of being with plants, like the crinkled, glossy texture of the dark green leaves of the passion flower unfurling or the spatter of spent maple blossoms on the sidewalk, crunching under foot. So although we come to phenology with a desire to be more attuned to nature, the emphasis on analysis and annotation can sometimes get in the way of truly seeing the world around us.
That’s why I asked the participants in the Year in Flowers class to also look for immeasurables. I was inspired by reading Hannah Hinchman’s book A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place. In this lovely, illustrated book, Hinchman draws maps of the place she lives and sketches the plants she encounters. She makes detailed observations, for instance this about the way different trees extend their seasonal growth:Beech droops. Ash extends symmetrically. Maple makes pagodas. Oak like small mice. Horse-chestnut umbrellas. Pignut hickory like cupped hands.
One of the things Hinchman notices (and records in her journal) while walking around her neighborhood is “kinds of shadows cast on the bottoms of shallow streams by the movement of the water surface, or things floating on it.”
Different students in my class chose different immeasurables, for instance, Nancy is observing spring runoff—she noted the drinking sounds from the trees, with the thickets of aspen demonstrating the most gusto. Anne Marie is tracking seasonal affective disorder. I’m not sure how she’s measuring it but Bill Felker’s whose Poor Will’s Almanack I’ve enjoyed for years (he didn’t create a print version this year but you can check out his blog posts), used to have a system that involved points for cloud cover, weather conditions and number of hours in a day that resulted in a total score. Mary in Texas noted how the morning light streamed from the southeast, striking the table in the dining room. “Sometimes it is so bright we can’t comfortably sit at the table.” Rasma is watching reflections in water. Her observations were like poetry:Feb 16: wind ruffles, fir needle boats, blue blue sky Feb 21: snow clouds and croaking raven wings, pointillist tree back against blue and white; vee-line geese Feb 22: evening shadows with birds heading to roost; purple depths and windblown orange leaves Feb 23: sunny ripples; multiple hues of green, brown, gold against cerulean blue
What immeasurable can you measure?
Last week while downtown in Seattle, I found these glorious leaf prints on the sidewalk, and they seem to be the perfect illustration of what happens when nature meets the city (in this case concrete sidewalks).
Of course, I went looking for information about what causes leaf prints. The main theory seems to be that they are created by tannins in the leaves, the same tannins that dye the water brown when you make tea or that make your mouth pucker when you drink relatively young red wine. These tannins don’t leach out of leaves when they are green, but only when they are decaying in autumn.
The word tannin comes from the word for oak tree (Tannenbaum in German) and is related to tanning, as it was used to tan leather. Tannins that leach into water from decaying vegetation can create brown and even black colored rivers. This photo I found at Wikipedia, which was taken by Doronenko, shows the confluence of the Morava, a blackwater river, with the Danube (the light color in the top left).
In my neighborhood, most of the leaf prints have disappeared, washed into the gutters by the rain, or perhaps my neighbors swept them away before they could set. I don’t know the optimal time frame for creating a leaf print. I think it’s time for some experiments. Maple leaves seem to be the best for making prints on the sidewalk, though I’ve also seen oak leaf prints at this link.
Another website solicited names for these, besides leaf prints, and got some creative versions including leaf stains, ghost leaves, tannin shadows, leaftovers and foliagraphs.
The web is full of craft projects to do with children to create leaf prints. Most use the simple technique you probably learned as a child, painting the leaves with tempera paints and pressing them on paper. Or putting a paper over a leaf and crayoning on top of it. The craft project I found most interesting was this one which suggets using a hammer to mash the actual color of the leaves and flowers into a page of paper.
Many years ago, I was given a beautiful book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic and Medicine, by Alice Thomas Vitale which elevates leaf prints to an art form. She simply used black ink and a brayer to create this elegant studies of various leaves but the results are amazing in their detail and vitality. The text is as lovely and respectful of the plants as are the leaf prints.
I became an urban naturalist because of my fascination with holidays, an obsession that began back when I was a lonely sophomore at Reed College, spending my evenings in the library, copying weird customs out of Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology and led me to graduate school at UCLA in Folklore and Mythology. Somewhere along the years of studying and celebrating, I recognized that most holiday customs were related to what was happening in nature at that particular place at that particular moment in time.
This day, August 15, is one of my favorite holidays because I can celebrate it with a simple custom: gathering wild grasses. I learned about this tradition from Gertrud Mueller Nelson who learned about it from her mother, who took her children down to the river to gather wild grasses on August 15, the Catholic feast of the Assumption. They would bring the grasses home in big bundles and pray over them. This ritual derived from a German custom of gathering wild flowers and herbs on this holiday and taking them to church to be blessed by the priest.
August 15 is an old harvest holiday (probably once celebrated on the full moon), when the grain goddess (later the Virgin Mary) would be asked to protect the harvest. All I ask is an opportunity to learn more about the wild grasses that grow on my block. There are plenty of those fancy ornamental grasses, planted by homeowners for decoration, and I admire those, but I’m more interested in the wild grasses, and their resemblances to rye, barley and wheat, the grains that have nourished humankind for centuries.
For a while, I was following the blog of Henry, a professor in San Francisco, who had taken on the project of identifying all the wild grasses he could find in the city in his blog. His commitment only lasted for two months in 2007 but it inspired me. How many wild grasses can you find and identify today?
The lovely photograph was taken by Melissa West.
The lavender in my garden is finally blooming which means it’s time for lavender vodka tonics (recipe found here). I only let myself drink them during the time the lavender blooms because I like them so much. Luckily lavender will bloom far into October.
When I first began my project of writing about the flowers in my neighborhood, three years ago, I set aside the month of July for drinking flowers. I had in mind beverages like linden tea and lavender lemonade but I was also contemplating combining flowers with alcohol, a time-honored tradition.
My interest coincided with a revival of flower spirits. Some of the traditional floral flavored liqueurs, like Creme de Violette and Elderflower cordial, started showing up in fancy cocktails. Then bartenders began creating their own concoctions, infusing herbs and flowers into vodka. The latest trend is artisanal bitters and “today listing house-made bitters on the menu and displaying dozens of homemade tinctures is a benchmark for most serious bar programs,” writes Brad Thomas Parsons in his book Bitters.
So when I heard about a cocktail tasting focusing on drinks from your garden, I signed up. The class was offered by Cicchetti and featured the artistry of Jay Kuehner, bartender from Sambar. Jay calls himself a forager, and is not so much interested in using the commercially produced floral or herbal liquors, as in gathering what’s available in the garden or the neighborhood to make drinks that are perfect for the time and place. He gave us a list of plants he would consider using which included: bay laurel, rosemary, fennel, lavender, angelica, nettles, roses, mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm, thyme, rhubarb, chicory, basil. For this tasting, Jay made four cocktails, each one highlighting a different technique and a different fresh ingredient, and these were paired with delicious small plates prepared by the Cicchetti chef.
Jay’s first offering was a dill-infused aquavit, perfect with a lightly smoked salmon and a goat cheese tart. Infusing is the simplest way to get the flavor of an herb or flower. Tea, for instance, is an infusion. You simply add hot water to the herb and the flavor, color and chemical constituents of the plant are diffused into the liquid.
Alcohol is another excellent way to extract flavor and other chemical constituents from plants. Since it is also a preservative, alcohol infusions can last for a long time. Jay recommended infusing an herb for three days in a cool, dark place to develop the flavors. He used aquavit, a neutral grain spirit, because it provided a blank canvas for the flavor to develop. Vodka is another favorite choice for infusions since it doesn’t have much flavor of its own.
Jay’s second cocktail employed the use of simple syrup. The most common recipe for simple syrup is one to one parts of sugar to water. Then you add your plant materials and let it boil for a few minutes, then take it off the heat and let it cool with the plant material still in it. Strain the plant materials out using a sieve, pressing them to release all the flavorful liquid. You can make simple syrup with any herb or plant. If you don’t drink alcohol you can add the syrup to soda water or combine it with lemonade or freeze it and turn it into a granita or sorbet.
Jay created a rose simple syrup from roses he had gathered that morning. I have also made rose simple syrup and I love it that every rose tastes different. The pale pink and white flimsy rosa rugosas that are blooming right now have an almost earthy (I think bread-like) flavor while the darker, older roses that used to grow in the vacant lot across the street from me had a perfumey quality.
Jay combined the rose simple syrup with muddled cucumber and Hendricks gin (which is distinctive among gins for its more herbaceous qualities including rose and cucumber notes). It was the favorite drink of the cocktail tasters, except for me. I preferred the next drink, probably because it featured one of my favorite floral flavors: lavender.
Jay infused a pisco (Peruvian un-aged grape brandy) with lavender blossoms for only a few hours. The liquor turned a brilliant purple and the lavender flavor was intense. He added a rhubarb compote (rhubarb cooked with water, sugar, lemon and orange), a splash of dry vermouth and some lemon juice, served it in a cocktail glass and garnished it with a curly rhubarb twist. The chef paired it with a lavender crusted pork loin and a fig in a rhubarb sauce. Heavenly.
A compote is made from fruit combined with water and sugar and cooked over heat, in other words, stewed fruit. Once strained, it can be added to a drink as a flavoring.
The final cocktail featured a combination of cachaça (the Brazilian sugar cane spirit), fennel simple syrup and lemon tree leaves, with angostura orange bitters and black pepper. This drink employed crushing aromatic leaves to impart flavor to a drink. Mint juleps use this technique with mint, but Jay mentioned other leaves that could be used, for instance, basil or bay laurel, lemon balm or lemon leaves. Even lavender leaves which he said imparted the same flavor as the flowers. I need to try this.
Our homework assignment for us was to find something within 30 feet of our homes and use that to develop our own signature drink to serve friends on a hot summer day. I send you forth to do the same.
When I first started writing about foraging four years ago, it was rare. Now the internet is full of blogs which feature the adventures of modern foragers. Foraging used to be an activity done by herbalists who gathered their materials out in the hills or elusive mushroom hunters who sold their finds to fancy restaurants. Now it’s affiliated with the local food/slowfood/DIY/urban farming scene. And everyone’s doing it.
Foraging usually refers to finding your food growing naturally (digging clams on a beach), not harvesting food you’ve cultivated (harvesting clams at a clam factory). The grandfather of American foraging was Euell Gibbons, whose famous line was “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.”
Seattle has our own famous forager, Langdon Cook, who lived for over a year in a cabin in the wood in Oregon with his wife, poet Martha Silano, which is where he learned to forage. He writes a blog, leads foraging tours and also has a book on foraging: Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager. New York City has Wild Man Brill who forages in Central Park and more recently Ava Chin, the Urban Forager.
One of the big concerns with foraging is safety. Do you know for sure this plant is not poisonous? Samuel Thayer, expert forager, has a long rant about this in his book, Nature’s Garden: Edible Wild Plants. He believes the preoccupation with poisonous plants is a fable that is economically and socially useful. It teaches us that nature cannot be trusted and keeps us from straying too far from the beaten path.
At the same time, Thayer is very conscientious about how careful one must be in identifying plants one intends to eat. He offers five steps: 1) tentative identification 2) finding a reference in a field guide 3) finding the plant in two other guides 4) finding other specimens of the plant and 5) becoming absolutely convinced. He points out that we never unpeel a banana and then worry: “is this really a banana?” You should be that convinced about any plant you intend to eat. And he suggests that the best way to learn about edible plants is to go foraging with a knowledgeable plant person. Plant lore, is verbal lore, passed down over generations.
I still remember reading the journal of Sophie Trupin, a homesteader on the plains of North Dakota at the turn of the century. Her family had emigrated from Russia and she wrote quite movingly about their difficulty knowing what plants they could eat or use for medicine. In the end, they relied on the help of the native people living in the area, for instance, to find a plant that healed a serious burn.
Another issue for the urban forager is property rights. As far as I can tell, plants growing in a public space (growing on the median strip, over-hanging the fence in an alley, growing on a traffic island) are considered public property. However, you can’t forage in city parks—that’s illegal.
Several years ago, a group of artists in Los Angeles, calling themselves the Fallen Fruit Brigade in Los Angeles published maps showing the location of fruit trees in various Los Angeles neighborhoods. In Seattle, a similar venture called City Fruit matches homeowners with extra fruit with volunteers who will harvest the fruit and take it to a food bank.
It’s always best to ask for permission if you are harvesting on someone else’s property. That way you can also check to find out if the plants were sprayed, another safety concern for the urban forager.
Foraging is usually applied to searching for food but I also forage for flowers. Debra Prinzig, who has written a wonderful book, The 50 Mile Bouquet, about locally-grown, seasonal flowers, posted a blog post about flower foragers Vicki Prosek and Valerie Prosek who gather flowers along freeway verges which certainly seems like a noncontentious source.
Coming up soon: the best urban foraging: blackberries! I like to pick them along the Burke Gilman trail. What and where do you forage in the city?
Several months ago I signed up for a six-day web challenge posed by Else Kramer, a photographer in the Netherlands, who sent me a different photo assignment every day. The first was to look up. I enjoyed the different perspective I got when looking up. But for the urban naturalist, the corresponding assignment for this time of the year is to look down.
So much is happening during this transition from spring to summer–the reproductive efforts of plants create a lot of detritus–and most of it ends up on the ground. I was in Portland two weeks ago and had a great time just walking around, studying the different things I encountered on the ground.
Trees shedding their seeds provide most of the material on the sidewalks right now. Earlier in the year, maple trees littered the sidewalks with spent flowers. Seattle writer and forager, Langdon Cook, recommends eating them in fritters.
After the flowers are gone, maples produce their fruit: those bright green maple keys, which are actually called samaras. These “whirly birds” are pairs of seeds, one on each side, attached to a thin membrane that is shaped like a wing. They spin as they fall so they can travel long distances to find a new place to sprout, especially if carried by the wind.
I also love the seeds of elms which come wrapped in a see-through, round-shaped light-brown membrane. These are often found heaped in drifts, filling gutters and home-owners end up sweeping them away, like so many autumn leaves.
Birch trees are casting off their catkins, which curl on the sidewalk like spent caterpillars. Those catkins are also flowers: the male catkins are the long brown ones, the females are shorter and a greenish color.
When you find flowers on the sidewalk, look up because you can catch the tree in flagrante delicto. The hawthorn I spotted today on my way to work was in the process of producing swelling green fruit from the center of every discarded flower. And the mock orange a little farther along the street was doing the same. The poppies are also doing it!
Limp white, purple and red blossoms carpet the ground beneath the rhododendrons in my neighborhood. Look at the nearby shrub and you will see the reproductive process in progress: the flower petals being shrugged from the stamen, and perhaps the swelling at the base of the pollinated stigma.
I spent some time prowling around the Internet looking for the specifics of rhododendron sex. I must say that most plants are quite discreet about their reproductive activities. The best I could do was find instructions for hybridizing rhododendrons which advised that the stigma (that’s the longish thing with the pink tip protruding from the center of the flower—it is attached to the ovary deep inside the flower’s base) should be receptive (to pollination, usually provided by bees) about three days after the flower opens and stay receptive for about three to five days. Sounds somewhat suggestive.
Another plant that scatters sidewalks with petals is the ceanothus or the California lilac. At this time of the year, I call it the blue dandruff plant since the bright blue petals are as tiny as dandruff flakes.
These are some of the things I see when I look down as I walk through my neighborhood. What do you find as you look down?
Corpus Christi is the name of a Catholic festival, which takes place on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday (which is the Sunday after Pentecost which is the Sunday 50 days after Easter). It was first established by the Council of Vienna in 1311 to promote the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the host consecrated in the Mass actually becomes the Body of Christ). It was really promoted during the Reformation as a demonstration of Catholic solidarity.
I still remember celebrations of Corpus Christi from my Catholic childhood. It was an opportunity for pomp and pageantry. There is usually a procession during which the priest displays the host in a monstrance, a golden vessel which is shaped like a sunburst. I often consider, since this festival falls so close to summer solstice, that the two holidays share a common underlying symbolism.
In France, this holiday is called Fete Dieu or the Feast of God. The priest wears red and gold lavishly embroidered garments. The monstrance is a golden vessel shaped like the sun. It is usually shielded by a canopy of silk and cloth of gold. Streets are scattered with flower petals and householders decorate their homes, often by pasting flower petals on a sheet and hanging them up.
Small altars are created along the roads. In France, they’re called reposoirs and are built at crossroads. They are decorated with flowers, garlands and greens and covered with canopies of interwoven boughs. The priest goes around and blesses them.
Corpus Christi is also a time for plays and pageants (although these were originally associated with Whitsunday). Fantastically dressed performers accompanied the processions and acted out scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints at stops along the way. In medieval times, each guild sponsored a scene in a grand play showing the whole scheme of Salvation. Some of the dramas were so long they could not be performed in their entirety: the Coventry cycle took two years.
Carol Field describes the way Corpus Christi is celebrated in Spello, Italy, where people transform the main street into a carpet of color using flower petals (infiorate). Collecting the flowers takes as long as two weeks. The oldest women are given the job of taking the flowers apart, petal by petal, and separating them by the subtle differences of hue. Pine needles, ivy leaves, camomile and fennel are ground up to make green. Poppies are used for red, broom for yellow and white from daisies. The designs are complicated, and often reproduce famous paintings, usually religious ones. The priest when he emerges from the cathedral holding up the Host walks down the length of flower carpet, and the petals scatter to the breezes. It is a display of beauty and richness that is as ephemeral as it is extravagant.
Julie Ardery of Human Flower Project wrote a column about the flower carpets of another Italian town, Genzano.
In keeping with the theme, my friend, Joanna Powell Colbert, recommended the spiritual and creative practice of making a flower mandala in her recent newsletter and illustrated it with this lovely example.
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, Morrow 1990
Painting of Corpus Christi procession by Carl Emil Doepler (found at Wikipedia’s article on Corpus Christi)
The photo of flowers at Spello comes from the French version of Wikipedia
The Armenians believe that on Ascension Eve, stones, stars and other soulless objects are said to receive the gift of speech and to share each other’s secrets. And in Poland, “the dragon who guards hidden treasures throughout the night, exposes them to view on Ascension, when he sets them out to air.” The sun is said to dance on this day when it rises.
In Armenia, girls tell their fortunes from tokens thrown into a bowl of water drawn from seven springs. All brooks and springs are said to be filled with healing power at midnight. If you don’t want to visit your local body of water at midnight, you might just put out a container and hope it rains since any water that falls from the skies on this day can also heal. In a somewhat related vein, in Sweden, a person who fishes from dawn until night on the Ascension will learn the hour when the fish bite best and be lucky in her angling all year.
In Greece, Ascension Day is considered the start of the swimming season. In Venice, the Doge used to wed the sea on this day by throwing in a wedding ring and some holy water. In Tissington, Derbyshire, wells are decorated on this day. In Nantwich, they bless the Brine, a very old pit, which is visited and hung with garlands. These customs seem to hark back to an old rite propitiating the spirit of the well (or the ocean).
In the early 19th century, the Halliwell (Holy Well) Wake was held on this day in the hamlet of Rorrington on the Shropshire/Wales border. The local people met at the holy well on the hillside at Rorrington Green and decorated with well with green boughs, flowers and rushes. A maypole was erected. While a fife, drum and fiddle played, the people danced and frolicked around the hill, followed by feasting, drinking and more dancing.
In Italy, Ascension is called La Festa del Grillo, the outdoor festival of crickets. People spend the day outdoors, reclining under the shade of trees, feasting on picnic and BBQ foods. Kids look for crickets, true symbols of spring, poking a piece of grass into their holes to lure them into cages already prepared with a piece of lettuce at the bottom. Nowadays the crickets are sold in pretty painted cages.
According to Toor, the Etruscans called the cricket scarabeus and honored it. The Greeks and Romans connected its chirping to the muses and music. The Greeks and Etruscans believed that the longer the confined grillo lived, the longer the life of its owner. The murals of Pompei depict tiny grillo cages made of reed. In Florence, they say that a singing grillo brings good luck. Freeing them also brings good luck. Children sing a song to their caged grillos (which reminds me of the American lady bug song):Grillo, mio Grillo Cricket, my Cricket, Se tu vo’ moglie dillo! If you want a wife say so! Se poi t’un la voi, If later you repent Abbada a’ fatti tuoi! Then hold your peace!
ReferencesField, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990 Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978 Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937 Toor, Frances, Festivals and Folkways of Italy, Crown 1953
First in a series of plant profiles by herbalist, Corinne Boyer of Opal’s Apothecary
In the autumn and wintertime, the hawthorn tree with her gnarled bark covered in grey green lichens and her gangly branches reminds me of an old woman. She is a small tree that can usually be found on older homesteads. But in the spring and early summertime she boasts vibrant green leaves that surround many small bouquets of white blooms, often tinged with pink. She becomes a queen! This tree is like the matriarch gatekeeper of the nature spirits in my mind. Many plants/trees seem to possess supernatural powers and hawthorn is one indeed. Here we will find a wealth of folklore and older uses that have been recorded throughout history.
There are around 200 known Cratagus species and they apparently cross easily. The Latin Cratagus comes from the Greek kratos meaning hardness, referring to the strength of the wood. The common European species is Cratagus monogyna and C. oxacantha. The Northwest has a native species, C.douglasii, known as black hawthorn. The genus is native to all temperate zones; Europe, North America and Asia.
Common names for hawthorn include May Flower, May Blossom, White Thorn, Thorn Apple, Hag Thorn, Ladies, Meat, Bread and Cheese Tree and Quick Thorn. The ship the Mayflower from England was named after Hawthorn. The word “haw” comes from the old word for hedge, for which this tree has been used extensively. The planting of hawthorn to provide fencing for pastures, or hedgerows, began in Roman times. Currently in North America, Hawthorn is planted for ornamental purposes and also as a tree that provides both food and shelter to birdlife.
The flowers are gorgeous but smell somewhat stinky and acrid. As the flowers are pollinated by flies and insects that are attracted to carrion, this smell has been compared to the smell of “carnal love” and of rotting flesh! The lime green leaves shine and have a shape that is unmistakable once learned. The autumn display shows off the haws, the fruits of the tree, in various shades of red, from bright to deep. In the winter time the wise tree stands naked, beautiful and her strong thorns can be found with ease.
In European folklore, this tree was considered sacred before the arrival of Christianity and afterwards. In particular, lone standing hawthorns or thorns, that is hawthorns that were not planted but occurred naturally, were known to be fairy trees. It was considered an act of vandalism to remove a bough, or take away fallen branches firewood. If one of these solitary thorns was removed, it could bring death to the family to the person who removed it. It was also believed that if the thorns were ploughed up, all fertility would leave the land. It is amazing to think back to the times when the powers of nature spirits, not science, ruled the collective consciousness.
It was advised to never fall asleep under one, for fear of be taken over by the fairies that abound. An Irish belief is that hawthorn grows over graves or buried treasure. Hawthorns also mark wells. In early May, people tied rags and trinkets to the branches of a hawthorn companion to a holy well. In the Lake District, hawthorns were also associated with justice and older court systems, and were planted near important meeting places.
Hawthorn is strongly associated with May Day celebrations because it blooms around the first of May. Going “a maying” was a happy custom where people would gather the flowering boughs alongside music and horn blowing. At sunrise, the branches were hung over the doorways of homes, which was originally a protective act. Bathing in the dew from a hawthorn on May Day ensured a beautiful complexion. In some parts of England, one was doused with water if a hawthorn sprig was not pinned on during the May Day celebrations.
On May eve, hawthorn could be used in a love divination. A girl would hang a branch of it from her signpost. In the morning, her future husband would come from the direction which it was pointing. If it fell, it foretold no marriage. Hawthorn is associated with love, interesting because of its carnal smell. It is connected with marriage rites and it is often incorporated into a bridal garland or chaplet. It is symbolic of fertility, love, marriage, hope, fruitfulness and spring.
Hawthorn is also associated with witches. In the Channel Islands, they believe witches meet under the solitary hawthorns and that it is dangerous to sit under a thorn on May eve as the tree is likely to transform herself into a witch. Interestingly, this “witch” tree was also used for protection from witches, by way of hanging crosses made of its wood over the house door. Driving a small hawthorn peg into a grave site could prevent the spirit from coming back to haunt the living or from turning into a vampire.
Hawthorn was associated with the powers of protection from lightning, as it was said that the white thorn was never struck by lightning. In fact, it was thought that cutting down the tree itself would cause a thunder and lightning storm. Attaching a sprig to the cradle of a newborn protected the child. Mothers in Burgundy France took their sick children to a flowering hawthorn tree and prayed to the tree for their health. It was thought that carrying a dying person round an ancient thorn three times and bumping against it would help recover their health.
Despite this, it was considered unlucky to bring hawthorn inside and one should never pick the flowers before May eve. An old Cheshire saying goes “May in, Coffin out.” Another old saying goes “Hawthorn tree and Elder flowers, Fill the house with evil powers.” In Ireland the flowers were never supposed to enter the home before June, and by then they would be done, I imagine. Apparently sleeping next to thorn flowering indoors in May would bring great misfortune.
Hawthorn has been used medicinally. The bark was used to soothe sore throats in Scotland, while an infusion of the flowers was good for anxiety and for stimulating the appetite. Also, this leaf infusion was used to ease childbirth pains in East Anglia. In Russia, hawthorn was used to treat conditions of the heart, much as it is used today, in particular for heart pain, angina. Traditional Scottish herbalists used hawthorn for balancing high blood pressure. The use of hawthorn as a heart tonic comes specifically from an Irish physician from the nineteenth century. An infusion of hawthorn leaves was used topically to draw out splinters and bring boils to a head.
The young buds of hawthorn were called ‘pepper and salt’ by country folk or ‘bread and cheese’. I have seen older salad recipes that include young hawthorn leaves in the long list of ingredients. Wine and mead can be made from both the flowers and berries. I like to make mead with the dried flowers–it is excellent! The berries can be infused in brandy or made into conserves along with other fruit, as they are mealy and dry but high in pectin. They are called “pixie pears” in some places. The berries were thought to be best after Halloween, when witches had flown over them.
I love hawthorn tea, made from the dried flowers and leaves of the tree. After drying, the stinky smell seems to lessen. It is a great tonic for circulatory and heart concerns, best used without any other medications and taken for 3-6 months to produce an effect. I make a decoction from the dried berries along with rosehips, hibiscus, cinnamon chips, allspice and a few cloves. This makes a beautiful “Red Velvet Chai” as I like to call it, delicious with a little milk and honey. I have a friend who likes to extract the berries in port wine. Here are some unique and interesting recipes to try.
Hawthorn Flower Syrup- from A Country Harvest- Pamela Michael5 Cups hawthorn flowers Extra sugar- see recipe 4 Cups sugar 5 Cups water 6-7 Tablespoons lemon juice 6-7 Tablespoons rosewater
Layer the flowers with sugar in a jar, until full. Heat the 4 cups sugar, water and strained lemon juice until sugar has dissolved, boil for 3 minutes. Set aside to cool, then add rosewater. Pour the cooled syrup into the jar of prepared flowers. Screw the lids on loose and place in a saucepan on sheets of folded newspaper, with the folded paper between jars to prevent them from touching. Fill pan with cold water and bring to boil then lower heat to barely simmering for one hour. Lift jars and tighten lids. When cold strain and pour syrup into bottles and cork. Store in refrigerator. Keeps for months.
Hawthorn Berry Jelly- From same source above3 Pounds Haws, pick larger ones if possible 3 ¾ Cups of water 1 pound sugar 1 pint lemon juice, strained
Wash berries thoroughly, place in saucepan with water and bring to a boil, cover cook gently for one hour. Occasionally mash berries with wooden pestle. Drip through double thickness of muslin or a jelly bag overnight. Measure juice into a large saucepan, adding sugar and lemon juice and bring to a boil, stirring continuously until sugar has dissolved, then boil hard for rapidly for 10 minutes or until jelly sets and pour into jars to seal.
References:Treasury of Tree Lore, Josephine Addison, Cherry Hillhouse, 1999 A Dictionary of Plant Lore, Roy Vickery, 1995 Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition- The Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland, Gabrielle Hatfield and David Allen, 2004 Hatfield’s Herbal, Gabrielle Hatfield, 2009 Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine , Gabrielle Hatfield, 2004 Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore , D.C. Watts, 2007 A Modern Herbal Volumes 1 and 2, Maude Grieve, 1931 A Country Harvest, Pamela Michael, 1980
Close-up of white May flowers by Kami Jordan
All other photos taken by Waverly Fitzgerald
Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn’t that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.
Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation). In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.
Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.
In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: “Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one.” People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.
Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.
On the very first Arbor Day, more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.
Or you can simply admire trees. Go on a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.
If you don’t have knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.
In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.
Al Khidr web site (source of picture)
Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day