Apple Blossom

Apple Cordons in full blossom

Following on from the Blackthorn blossom a couple of weeks ago, I am now seeing the best display of apple blossom ever in my garden! I had always believed apples needed sufficient cold to set flower buds, but clearly that isn’t the case. Having had warm winters two years in a row, and small crops for the last two years as well, I think the trees have gathered their energies into production. It is of course possible that my pruning has improved and had some effect, but I’m not aware of it. I think it is just a good year for fruit blossom around here.

Blossom from ‘Bountiful’ opening from dark pink to white.

I really enjoy the different colours from different plants, and the change as the petals open.

Anyway as apples are such a great Pagan fruit, I just wanted to share it this week. Pagan because they make a five-pointed star inside, and because anything regarded as totally sinful and at the same time the fount of all wisdom must be good… They are pretty good for promoting harmony and love as well!

Arthur Turner Blossom

Crabapple ‘Laura’ Blossom. The fruit is dark red all the way through.

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Blackthorn Weatherforecasting

Blackthorn Blossom

For the past two weeks, almost since the March equinox, the Blackthorn has been increasingly floriforous around here. It is a ghostly presence in the hedges, with its white flowers growing along the smaller branches and tops of Prunus spinosa trees, leaving their black trunks bare underneath – almost like the child dressing up at Samhain with black leggings and a white sheet over their heads. Yet the hawthorn which makes up the bulk of the hedges around here is now glowing green with fresh young leaves, creating a patchwork effect.

The old saying for this time of year was “Beware the Blackthorn Winter.” With high pressure dominating and the weather having turned beautifully sunny and warm for much of the country, I have felt that Spring has finally sprung – yes there is the occasional nightly frost, but nothing particularly long lasting since most days it has gone within an hour of sunrise. So I have been puzzled as to why Blackthorn blossom should suggest a return to winter, and decided to investigate further.

Patchwork of white Blackthorn and green Hawthorn

It turns out that normally the blackthorn flowers at the middle to end of April – when there is very often an unexpected cold period. This year winter has been mild, and the weather seems to be continuing that way, so I am thinking this has caused the blackthorn to be particularly early. It is not alone; bluebells have been flowering since the beginning of April around here, 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. But the result of this is that the Blackthorn is not coinciding with a cold spell as it usually does; MET office forecasts are currently predicting ‘rain or showers, turning wintery’ ie snow for next weekend…

I now await confirmation from another tree for my planting out, using that other favourite saying “Ne’er cast a clout ’till May be out.” It refers to the hawthorn blossom, which is usually in flower in mid-May around here – and has generally proved a reliable guide to the last frosts (provided I wait for my own hedge to flower rather than those in more sheltered locations). It already has flower buds, but as I have seen before, the tree is happy to keep its flowers in bud if necessary until the cold weather is over. Wise old trees!

Tadpole update

Mass of emerged tadpoles

I thought anyone who follows my blog might like to know that the tadpoles are all wriggling about the pond…

The first ones ‘hatched’ after 2 weeks, with more emerging each day over the next week and creating a very dark mass of wrigglers in the centre of the two clumps of frogspawn. Finally they seem to have eaten the remains of their ‘egg sacks’ and the first ones broke free to pastures new, being seen around the plants and nibbling algae of rocks – particularly later in the day as the sun warms them. I may have a cleaner, clearer pond very soon!

Tadpole off exploring

Happy Equinox

This year I have been asked to write a series of articles about the various Pagan festivals for a non-pagan audience, so I have been looking at the ‘basics’ of what is common to each festival rather than just relying on my own personal eclectic practices. Needless to say my online searches have turned up many short introductory articles, most of which repeat the same information, most of which is totally familiar. But just a few give me something that I didn’t know before, and in the case of the Spring Equinox, some of what I thought I ‘knew’ has proved to be just a little different.

1. I always had the impression that this festival and its September equivalent were less celebrated and therefore less important than the other sabbats.
However, several stone circles including Stonehenge and various circles in Derbyshire where I am getting to know them have alignments to the sunrise or sunset on this day. They wouldn’t have bothered if they weren’t interested!
I also suspect that the majority of celebrations were related to the farming year – it is always the time when I start my seed sowing, and it always feels entirely appropriate to start it with a ceremony.

2. It comes in the middle of the Pagan year.
Well it does if the year starts at the Autumn Equinox or at Samhain, but actually the spring equinox comes at the start of the modern Persian year, the old European year (on March 25th), the astrological year… The Romans also celebrated new year in March before they created January and February. Of those who didn’t, the Greeks celebrated at the winter solstice, and the Egyptians and Phoenicians started their year at the Autumn Equinox.

3. The name Ostara is used for this festival, the German equivalent of Eostre.
First there is the confusing claim that Eostre was only mentioned by Bede and nowhere else so he probably made her up… Given that Bede was pretty good on his knowledge on every other subject, I don’t see why he shouldn’t have known about the local Goddess where he lived! Evidence on many Celtic and Anglo-Saxon deities is pretty scanty at times, but there are always clues for those that wish to see them.
But, and this is a big but for me, I then read that Eostre’s day was the first full moon after the equinox, not the equinox itself. Given that Eostre is concerned with hares and eggs, this makes perfect sense that the full moon would be relevant, and also explains why Easter is the first Sunday after Eostre’s day. The only trouble is I shall no longer feel right celebrating eggs at the equinox, I will want to wait for the full moon. And it also means that Eostre (and if they are equivalent Goddesses, Ostara) had nothing to do with the Equinox – giving me a whole new set of challenges, and hopefully journeys of discovery, for next year.
Just to confuse things further, there are also those who claim Easter was named for Ishtar who, while still being a Spring Goddess, has a whole different mythology associated with her…

4. Egg hunts are just a fun thing for children to do.
Eggs have been apparently been decorated on every continent, the oldest yet discovered being South African and 60,000 years old. The ancient Egyptians decorated eggs. Almost every European country as well as several Asian and American ones have their own special egg traditions. Eggs can be cooked or blown, scratched, carved, coloured in many different ways, and then displayed in some form (often hung in a tree or by a well) or offered to another. They are not restricted to a particular day either; any time from early spring to the summer solstice seems to have been recognised in this way. But in Britain, eggs were apparently buried by Celtic Druids after being dyed red in order to encourage the life force to return to the Earth for new planting. More sinisterly if true, during difficult times in Europe eggs were hidden to avoid it being known that offerings were being made to the Goddess and children were apparently paid on finding and reporting these eggs. Hiding eggs so that they may be hunted for ‘fun’ seems to have started in England by the 1800s.

Oddly I found an egg buried nearly a foot deep in my garden a month or so ago when planting a small tree. Probably a duck egg, white and quite large, and heavy as if there was an egg inside it. Having absolutely no idea where it came from or what to do with it (we have lived here for 19 years and have never kept ducks) I just left it on the surface of the soil to see what would happen. A week later it was still there, but after another week I saw its broken shell, and it was now definitely empty. Who or what ate it, and what condition or age it was, I have no idea.

Frog Spawn

Frog spawn apparently ‘appears’ between January and February or March, in any pond where there are frogs. I have had various people asking if we had any over the past few weeks, but had to keep saying no, the pond was less than a year old and I didn’t know if we would this first year.

Frogspawn

First Frogspawn, a few hours old. (Click to enlarge.)

And then to our great excitement a large clump of spawn appeared last Sunday.

Given it was full moon that day, I spent some time in the garden in the evening and for the first time in my life had the joy of listening to the gentle sound of frogs croaking. After about 20 minutes there was a splash, then silence. A second clump of frogspawn had appeared – so close to the first I almost missed it in the dark.

Two clumps of frogspawn. (Click to enlarge.)

So now I am keeping an eye for changes, and making sure nothing damages the spawn. However, I was fascinated one morning to discover just how well it looks after itself. Some beech leaves had blown in from the nearby hedge, which I remove most days at this time of year, and one had landed on the spawn. I was surprised to find it was slightly stuck to the spawn and then worried about damaging them as I pulled it off – until I realised that it had a series of circular holes and arcs cut into it. (Afterwards I wished I had kept hold of the leaf, as I couldn’t find it again later to take a photograph.) I can only assume that the coating on the spawn had dissolved the leaf wherever it touched, so that it was no longer blocking the light. This seems to me some feat to achieve in less than a day on a crispy tough beech leaf!

Frogspawn photographed from underwater

Meanwhile my photography took a new turn as I began writing this post, as I managed to find the waterproof case we used to use with our old camera when canoeing. I have a lot to learn still about lighting and focal distances underwater – I obviously cannot see what is in the viewfinder, nor can I check the resulting images very well while they are in the waterproof case, and it needs to dry before I can open it giving little chance for a repeat attempt.

7 day old frogspawn, photographed from underwater.


Surprisingly for a camera that is rubbish at macro, it was the closest pictures that came out most in focus, just showing the start of tails developing. Hopefully with this knowledge and a bit more time to experiment, I will improve before the tadpoles emerge!

Spring Weeding

The sun come out, the soil warms up, and every year I am surprised by how the weeds always seem to launch into growth ahead of my preferred flowering plants…

I have spent the past three weeks weeding, whenever I have half an hour or an hour and it isn’t actually raining. Mainly just four perennial plants (it being too cold for the annuals to get going) – grass, dandelions, American willowherb and avens. Avens I unfortunately allowed to seed itself thinking it might be geum, and which now infiltrates from its base in the hawthorn hedge to wherever it can hide. The geums meanwhile seem to have given up the ghost; there were none last summer. Creeping buttercup used to be a problem, but I have only found a couple of areas this year that it has tried to cover pretending to be hardy geraniums. I am growing wise to the subtle differences there too.

I think only one plant was inadvertently weeded out this year, a phlox paniculata just emerging that looked like a Rosebay willowherb. (Had I realised immediately it could have been replanted, but unfortunately it had to wait for me to flick through a plant catalogue that arrived a week later.) I have never managed to grow tall phloxes, them being rather prone to mildew and other fungi, but like everything, try occasionally when I find a cheap plant that looks pretty in the hopes it will do better this time. Clearly it is partly my own fault I don’t have phlox!

But now I am left wondering what plants resemble grass that I need to be careful of? Dierama seedlings? Crocosmia? Hemerocallis? Luckily I don’t think the dandelions are in danger of confusion with anything else so at least I know I am safe weeding them out before they flower! However, dandelions are one plant I might just allow to grow – were it not for the fact there is usually a field full of them just over my back wall where they look stunning both in flower and later with their silvery seed clocks.

So I now have the near impossible task of filling the gaps (before they fill themselves) with other native wildflowers. Near impossible, because while I think plants such as Helleborus foetidus or Geranium robertianum or Silene dioica should be easy to obtain, they are generally eschewed at the garden centres in favour of new introductions that pay plant breeders rights and will ideally live for only a season or two, ensuring the purchaser returns to buy more plants next year. I’m sure the cottage gardeners of yesterday would have simply dug a bit up and transferred plants to their garden, or hedgewitches would simply have known where to find them locally when they were wanted. Today I must create my own garden, and that may even include importing the ‘weeds’ I want!

Happy Imbolc

The 1st/2nd February may be the start of Spring, but Imbolc was not a sunny day here this year!

Maybe I should be glad – it is said in Scottish folklore, that if the Cailleach wishes to make Winter last longer, she will ensure Imbolc is bright and sunny so she may gather lots of firewood. If the weather is foul that day, the Cailleach is fast asleep and Winter is nearly over. It was so windy that I had trouble taking any photographs at all, although at least our everlasting fog has been blown away. The poor snowdrops in my garden, pictured in snow at the start of February two years ago, have not had enough warmth or sun to open properly yet this year and are now looking ragged.

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

But an unexpected find: Rosemary just coming into flower. It is a wonderful Winter herb, full of flavour through the darkest months when nearly all the softer herbs have lost their leaves or disappeared below ground, as well as giving shape to the garden. Then just when I start thinking the ‘evergreen’ plants are looking stiff and tired they spring into new growth, or bring out these wonderful blue flowers. It makes a great herbal tea, full of robust energies – as well as being anti-bacterial anti-septic, and an antioxidant. I also like it mixed with my other winter herb, Thyme, which is great for coughs.

Bark Patterns

Sycamore Bark

Sycamore Bark

New Year, new trees… and I have a new camera to play with. Here is one of my early pictures of some tree bark which caught my eye, just enjoying the patterns that were formed as the tree grew. I believe it is the mature bark of a sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus, not a tree generally considered to be beautiful, but it comes into its own in Winter and also early Spring when it is one of the first to sprout new leaves.

A Woodland Spring

There is a very lovely woodland spring near to me, which I had the opportunity to revisit this week. It is shown on maps as “Ben’s Well”, near to “Ben’s Farm”, and lies within “Booth’s Wood”. I have not as yet been able to find out anything about who Ben was – do comment below if you can enlighten me!

Ben's Well as it emerges from the ground.

Ben’s Well as it emerges from the ground with the root bridge in the foreground.
(Click to enlarge.)

The spring is one of several nearby, but the only one that never seems to be muddy. It comes straight out of the muddy bank and flows beautifully pure and clear, making nice drinking. I was reminded on tasting it of some of Victor Schauberger’s work on streams following their natural course through woodland, running all year and never flooding or jamming up if they are not interfered with by man. The temperature stays far more constant with the tree’s shading, and it is very pleasant there even on a hot day.

Root bridge at Ben's Well.

Root bridge at Ben’s Well. (Click to enlarge)

There is, however, an extra feature that attracts me to this stream. Within a few feet of the spring is a path, which at one time had a stone wall built along each side of it. This can be seen higher up in the wood, with the occasional stone gatepost still standing. However where it crosses the stream, the main evidence of the wall is where a tree root has used it to advantage to make a natural bridge. This root has become the crossing point itself. A special place.

Root Bridge and Wood Sorrel

Root Bridge at Ben’s Well, Derbyshire. Wood Sorrel grows on the upstream side.