Thorn 2

The hawthorn Crataegus monogyna is the fourth of the common small trees of the Rose family to flower white in spring and early summer. It follows blackthorn, wild cherry (gean) and bird cherry, reaching its peak flowering in May, and unlike the blackthorn puts out its leaves before it flowers.  While marsh marigold flowers before May Day and before the second cross quarter day of the year, hawthorn here reaches its peak flowering in the middle of the  month. This year, 2014, all four of the thorns and cherries were covered in turn in masses of white – a spectacular sight.

Hawthorn tree just coming into leaf, Balnaguard Glen, 15 April 2012 (Squire)
Hawthorn tree, Balnaguard Glen, Perthshire 15 April 2012 (Squire)

Hawthorn is the last in the year of the small trees with a clear white blossom and the last with a fragrance. Next comes rowan with a mousy tinge to its flowers, and the much rarer wild service tree, even more mousy in look, and in smell too – that first-whiff-of-dead-mouse  unmistakably filtering down from the tree’s branches as it filters down from the deceased rodent in your roof space.

Hawthorn tree in flower, southern base of the Sidlaws, 20 May 2014 (Squire)
Hawthorn tree in flower, southern base of the Sidlaws, 20 May 2014 (Squire)

Hawthorn, if left in a clearing and unchopped, forms a fine small tree, as in the upper image above, just coming into leaf at Balnaguard Glen, and immediately above, in flower behind a stone wall at the southern base of the Sidlaw Hills.  It is more common in a hedge, sometimes planted, sometimes self-sown. Where hedges are cut close each year, it hardly flowers, except in gaps or at the ‘ends’, for example next to a gate.

Hawthorn joins meadowsweet, agrimony, lady’s mantle, wood avens, raspberry, strawberry, cherries, apples and pears as useful members of the Rose family. It makes a good thorny hedge (to keep stock in and – historically ? – people out), a hard wood for tool handles, and a source material for dyes, teas and various concoctions. Its many mythical and supernatural associations are related in Grigson and Mabey’s Flora Britannica.

Hawthorn in flower (images superposed to show depth) in a shaded lane, east Perthshire 8 June 2013 (Squire)
Hawthorn in flower (images superposed to show depth) in a shaded lane, east Perthshire 8 June 2013 (Squire)

The flowers of the Rose family are simple, most parts distinct and visible. The sepals and petals are usually in fives, as in the image above, and the central female, tubular stigma is surrounded by many male stamens whose pollen-bearing anthers change from a first, fleshy, deep pink to brown and then shrivelled black, all in a few days. In the compound image above, of the same branch, but focussed on two different planes, the pink anthers are of a flower just opened while the rest are past their prime.

The fruits, known as haws, ripen to crimson in autumn and define the croplands’ hedges and copses as much as the hips of the wild roses and the sloes of blackthorn. Few people now collect and know what to do with these natural products.

{to be continued]














Cherry 1

The wild cherry, also known as gean, Prunus avium is the second of the croplands’ wild cherries to flower. Like many wild trees, grown from seed, individuals differ in their tendency to be vegetative or reproductive.  Some trees hardly flower while others cover themselves in a spectacular mass of white in late April and early May.

Wild cherry in flower – the mass of the tree borne on several trunks, possibly arising from an original, central trunk, now dead, 16 April 2011 (Squire)

The gean can be cut into a hedge but more often appears as a small to medium tree, a strong trunk  supporting a few main branches, off which emerge secondary branches almost at 90-degrees in some specimens. The best wild cherries are in tree lines or copses in unmanicured farmland. The one shown above, straggling a stony mound, was on the margin between arable and upland grazing. It looks as if the present tree might be supported by several ‘stems’ that grew around an old dead or cut trunk.

Floral cluster of wild cherry, one of many on a long thin branch of the tree shown above, April 2011 (Squire)

The cherries themselves are small and sour, a flavouring for alcoholic drinks, while the timber is strong, the gum is said to be ‘an old medicine … recommended for coughs’ (Grigson) and ‘the roots dye purple-red’ (Darwin T).

Unlike the blackthorn, the first to bloom, whose flowers are spattered all over the tangle of branches, the gean holds its flowers in clusters on straight branches, usually just trunk-wards of an expanding cluster of leaves. The sepals, that split and bend back to allow the white petals to unfurl, are reddish (see image above) whereas they are green in the blackthorn.

The wild cherry is increasingly common now as a result of plantings after road construction. Some of these trees look a bit too lush for a wild cherry.

Wild cherry, planted a few years ago after a road construction, in flower late April 2014 (Squire)


Thorn 1

The blackthorn Prunus spinosa is the first of the wild members of the genus Prunus, the cherries, to flower in the year. Its fruit – the black sloe – is not what we might expect of a cherry, being sour and unfit to eat, yet is used as a flavouring.

Generally the bush reaches full flower in mid-April while the leaves are still in bud, or just expanding, and where the plants are let to form thickets, they appear from a distance as if a heavy frost had covered the tangle of black branches.

Blackthorn thicket in flower, Sidlaws, mid-April (Squire)
Blackthorn thicket in flower, Sidlaws, mid-April (Squire)

The spectacle of a blackthorn thicket in flower has become uncommon in the croplands – relegated to higher ground on the fringes of rough grazed pasture or in lowland hedges that have been serially uncut. Massed thorn is sometimes seen as plantings around roundabouts and slip roads but seldom impresses.

It is a fine plant of the hedgerow but rarely flowers on branches that are trimmed short.

Blackthorn Prunus spinosa in flower mid-April (Squire)
Blackthorn Prunus spinosa in flower mid-April (Squire)

The flowers are simple and primitive, typical of the Rose family – five green sepals, which previously encased the flower bud, but now showing through the base of the five white petals, and many pollen-bearing (male) anthers ringing a central (female) style and stigma.

The flowers are held close to the woody stems, on stalks about 1 cm long, unlike the gean Prunus avium where the flowers hang in clumps  on longer stalks and the bird cherry Prunus padus where they are held away from the stems on short floral branches.

Almost-ripe sloes on a branch in autumn (Living Field collection)

The blue-black fruit, like a small dark plum, is used in drinks, gin and sloe wine, and has a long history as a medicinal and dye.  It turns dark blue from green in autumn, and if not removed, remains black and slowly withering throughout the winter when the leaves are gone.

Occasionally the blackthorn grows into a small tree, as the one by a lane in the images below.

Blackthorn as a small tree (Squire)
Blackthorn as a small tree (Squire)




Spring equinox

The croplands have not seen deep frost and snow this winter. They’ve basked in single-figure-Celsius warmth. By the spring equinox on 20 March 2014, the soil was not cold to the hand, and the winter cereals and oilseeds, sown last August to October, were almost covering the fields in a thin layer of green.

Sunrise is racing northwards now, as fast as it gets – and only three months to the summer solstice.

Back a year – to this day in 2013 – when large tracts of these islands were covered in deep snow and a deep cold that killed stock and set back crops.  The northern cropland got off lightly, yet the higher land here was white on 23 March 2013.

This was the scene on Dron Hill in east Perthshire, a great beech Fagus sylvatica, looking to Dunsinane but etched on white. Dron was an iron age encampment or fort, a reminder that crops and stock were tended here 2500 years ago, and long before that.

Spring equinox 2013 on Dron Hill, Perthshire (Squire)
Spring equinox 2013 on Dron Hill, Perthshire (Squire)