Nature 2010 April

The Taste of Spring

I happened across the following short extract from a letter written by one of the most famous novelists of the early 20th Century.

“Do you remember that autumn afternoon on Cholesbury Common, when we were picking blackberries…?”

For an author whose experiences while living in this area provided the inspiration to write such controversial (for the time at least) novels as The Rainbow and Women in Love, it’s interesting that one lasting memory for DH Lawrence of Cholesbury was the innocent enjoyment of collecting some wild fruit.

Aside from the obvious contrast between the freshness of a punnet of blackberries with those straight from the hedgerow, the real distinction is in enjoying the taste and texture of fruit where some peril is involved, and maybe discomfort suffered in the pursuit of the most ripe and therefore most inaccessible examples of the bramble fruit. A word of warning though: according to folklore the berries should not be eaten after Michaelmas Day, 29 September as they will have been cursed by the devil’s spit! How good this autumn’s crop of fruit will be largely depends on the good start to the growing season offered in April and May. In effect the pleasure derived from their ripeness in autumn is ‘the taste of spring’.

The popularity of the TV programme The Good Life may have rekindled an interest in homemade wines however, these were oft based on age old recipes which had also experienced a renaissance in Tudor England. Henry VIII, having fallen out with the Church of Rome, popularised these ‘Hedge Wines’, as he called them, as a political statement that his court and his people would only taste the wines made from the fruits of his own Empire. The tartness of these fruit wines or cordials was preferred to the often insipid and heady condition of grape wines. Hedges of that time which survive to this day still display the richness and diversity of food plants. They were never a haphazard assortment of trees, shrubs, climbers and herb plants but a carefully husbanded assembly, providing all year round food supplies, flowers, hips, haws, berries as well as fragrances and potpourri, medicines and poisons(!), protection and fodder for animals, building materials and firewood.

Although around this part of the Chilterns most woodland comprises mainly hardwood trees, we are blessed with some impressive stands of conifers, such as the narrow plantation that runs up the valley side to Oak Lane near Widowcroft Wood. In Scotland, crossbills make a handsome living using their eponymous tool to wheedle out the flanged pine fruits from their cones. In the otherwise silence of a highland forest, the rasping sound of these birds betrays their presence. We cannot boast this colourful finch but its cousin, the greenfinch, might be found this time of year seeking out maturing cones and doing a passable imitation of its Hibernian relative. A close inspection of their conical bill reveals it too has a scissor-tipped beak enabling it to ‘turn a hand’ to extracting the tasty morsel. The ability of birds to taste or smell is extremely limited in enabling them to cope with the nasty stuff they come across when foraging or consuming, but sufficiently developed to ensure they reject poisonous insects or plant items.

There are some plants in bloom we admire for their colour and others for their perfume. It is easy, when talking of April, to wax lyrical about the waxy blue bloom on the woodland floor of the bluebell. In doing so, one can overlook the delicate inflorescences of wood anemone, white above and a thin pale pink stripe beneath: a perfect flower for an artist’s still-life study. The Greeks called them windflowers on account of their requiring a spring breeze to bring them into flower. Like many woodland flowers at this time of the year they rely on early emerging insects. Beetles and flies taste their spicy nectar and pollinate them. Their bitter perfume does nothing to complement their beauty and provides them with their alternative Old English name of ‘smell foxes’. Standing proud and firm amongst the bluebells as well as in its own ‘plantations’ is another white flower; the fivestarred wild garlic. Again its traditional name gives a clue to its main feature. ‘Ramsoms’ derives from rans meaning ‘rank’ which reflects the unmistakable odour when it is encountered. Such an all-pervading smell can truly be tasted as we walk amongst it and its essence from bruised stems carried back home with us.

I have commented previously on noticing a year-on-year reduction in cockchafers in May. I doubt the maybugs around here could have somehow evolved to ignore the appeal of security lights. In towns where garden lawns provided a likely habitat, increased manicuring and replacement may have taken their toll, but here with a more varied habitat the causes are less clear. On agricultural land their demise could still be man-made as they are rabid feeders on cereal roots. Changes in weather patterns might play a part, or changes in soil temperature and water-table levels. Another possible cause may also be the increase in populations of corvids (crows, magpies and jackdaws) which scavenge for the tasty creamy-white C-shaped grubs of the beetles known also as ‘white worms’. The adults hatch in October but hang around underground until May when they swarm around trees, such as oak, on which they feed. It will be interesting to see if this year bucks the trend or not, reports from eye or ear-witnesses would be welcome.

Three other signature species for April and May: the Cuckoo, last year heard early (17 April): this year perhaps it may be late? Then there are Orange Tip butterflies busying themselves, tasting the nectar of the bank-side flowers, careering back and forth giving the false impression of a mass invasion. Thirdly swallows, tasting this year’s crop of insects while on the wing. So in conclusion, and like Lawrence, why not also enjoy a perambulation on, and in moderation, the fruits of the Commons.