Darling buds of May

The first day of May traditionally brings festivities with it. For centuries, the centrepiece of the day has been everything that symbolises the promised explosion of Spring.

Folklore has it that all crop planting should be completed by May 1, so farm labourers could take a day off and the community could come together to celebrate a job well done. Records of May day celebrations stretch even further back than that, though, as far as Anglo-Saxon times.

Morris dancing and the crowning of a May Queen are traditions lstill kept up by many English villages and thankfully most of us still benefit from a day off work.

It’s the perfect chance to relax, maybe get out to a nature reserve like Anglian Water’s Alton Water, or catch up on some of those pressing garden jobs now that the weather is on the up.

Most of us are familiar with the tradition of dancing around the maypole. It’s perhaps the most obvious May symbol, and while it’s not actually of English origin, maypoles, ribbons and ornate dances have come to symbolise everything we love about the archetypal English village scene. Even where we’re lacking an actual pole, you’ll often nowadays find a Maypole pub!

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Perhaps by thinking a little about these age-old Mayday festivities you can use this Spring bank holiday to do your bit for garden wildlife, as well as reliving a little of the pagan tradition.

Maypoles were often constructed from the wood of the hawthorn tree. Hawthorn’s link with the month is in its name, as it’s sometimes referred to as ‘mayflower’ in reference to the month when the shrub typically bursts into bloom. You might have heard the saying “ne’er cast a cloot til Mey’s oot” – a traditional warning not to shed any cloots (clothes) before summer has arrived and the mayflowers (or hawthorn blossoms) are in bloom.

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In truth, the plant isn’t usually in full flower until a few weeks into May, but you’ll start to see the blossoms exploding like bundles of miniature yellow and white fireworks from the beginning of the month.

And when you’re filling out a hedge or adding some decorative colour to your own garden, you could do a lot worse than planting a native hawthorn hedge. At Anglian Water, all of our planting schemes aim to use native plants. The hawthorn is high up the list of species that we like to use, as it’s such a wildlife friendly plant.

Different types of wildlife benefit from hawthorn hedges all year round. Early in the year, fresh leaves provide food for moth caterpillars, including giants of the moth world, like the emperor moth.

If you disturb these moths, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen a butterfly – the males have bright orange hindwings, and large eye-like spots of the forewings. You might see them flying during the day in May.

Hawthorns are also hugely important for insects – over 150 different species are thought to feed on the plant. Its flowers provide nectar, which attract bumble bees, while its spiny branches provide shelter for shield bugs and earwigs.

These are then eaten by predators such as some spiders, wrens, and blue tits. Some of these birds will also chose to nest in hawthorn, as its dense growth provides the ideal cover to raise a family.

Later in the year, blackbirds, redwings, fieldfares, and a whole manor of other birds will relish the haws the plant provides. They’re a great food source when other fruits are becoming increasingly scarce.

So why not see if a hawthorn can take to your garden? They’re a hardy plant, tolerant of lots of different settings, including a dry garden. So if you’re looking to conserve your use of water, a hawthorn would be a good choice.

You’ll have to wait until later in the year to plant it, but get outside this weekend and see if the bundles of small, fragrant flowers are catch your eye, or your nose! If you like the look if it – and more importantly, if you like the look of the wildlife that will be thriving on it – why not clear a space in your garden for this most English of May plants?

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