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  • Glynis Roache

The Merry Month of May

Updated: Jun 3

         On the cusp of spring and summer, May in Britain is an unpredictable, rambunctious month with burgeoning growth, volatile weather and unruly historical customs. In its intrinsic dichotomies it reflects the existential problems of life itself more than does any other month. 

       The Celts named the first day of May 'Beltane', which is one of four pagan fire festivals throughout the year. The Celts saw Beltane in terms of life and fertility being returned to the world. Bel was a Celtic deity, or god, the name Bel meaning bright one, and he is traditionally partnered with the primal mother goddess Danu. Danu means both knowledge and river and is sometimes taken to mean the moist, fertile earth where water meets land. So we have an origin story which parallels Adam and Eve in being based on a sacred union of opposites. The ‘pagan’ version is played out annually, in May, when the Earth is at its most potent and fertile.

         But, according to the folklore, this sacred union is frequently hard won. Across the month there is an ongoing battle, evidenced by rapidly changing and frequently turbulent weather patterns, as the winter king (the Holly King) and the summer king (the Oak King) compete for the hand of the flower maiden. After the battle, the triumphant Oak King is depicted as the Green Man with oak leaves in his hair, and his enthronement with the May Queen is still depicted in modern pageantry. How much of this was believed and how much was always intended to be allegory I don’t know, but somehow it feels more fun than hearing weather forecasters talk about alternating anticyclones and depressions.

      Interestingly, the ‘Kings battling for the hand of a maiden’ motif can be seen in the folk tales of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Maid Marian.

          From a gardener’s point of view, the battle was certainly in evidence this May. The weather was cold with endless rain, then quite suddenly the temperatures soared and the roses in particular were blooming ahead of schedule, yet within a few hours it would became cold, wet and windy again. Rinse and repeat. All of which no doubt accounts for what used to be my father’s take on the month : ‘Never cast a clout ‘til May is out’. A mantra which came up whenever I suggested that it was time for me to change from winter knee socks to summer ankle socks.

       The Winter King’s heavy rain this year gave us problems in the field which serves as a car park when we are open. Sculptors delivering pieces were getting their vehicles bogged down to such an extent that our old Ferguson tractor could not tow them out. We had to call on a very generous neighbour with a huge John Deere. When it came round to opening time, Andrew mailed out the suggestion that people should delay visiting until we’d had a couple of sunny/windy days. 

       As it happens, one of the reasons that this house was built on this site is a water source - an aquifer which runs  beneath/around it. In fact, the house continued to rely on its own water supply for two hundred years until the 1970s when it was connected to the mains. There is an ancient electric pump in what is now the larder and, when this is turned on, a tap in the backyard magically pours water. Even in droughts serious enough to merit prolonged hosepipe bans, the pump has continued to deliver so we have always been able, with relatively clear consciences, to keep young plants alive. Beyond the concept of ‘somewhere underground’ the precise nature of the pump’s connection to the aquifer is lost to us. Come the revolution and the collapse of civilisation, we may need to change to a hand pump but, in the meantime, we merely flick the switch and give a grateful, if superstitious, nod to the spirit of the water course.

      In some rural parts of the country, the spirits of wells and springs are given hugely ornamental nods. The tradition of well dressing, also known as well flowering, is long established in parts of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. In late May, wells, springs and other water sources are decorated with designs created from flower petals. The exact origin of these tributes to the ‘spirits’ of wells and springs is obscure. It may have been simple gratitude for a pure water supply or, as more speculative scholars suggest, it may have been stimulated by surviving the Plague or Black Death (1348) or, alternatively, for the water's constancy during the prolonged drought in 1615.

       A well dressing festival is becoming a bigger and bigger event in Malvern - a place abundantly supplied with springs and wells. It takes place earlier in May than do those further north and makes an effective prelude to the RHS Malvern Spring Show. According to published information for 2024 the festival included ‘well dressings, blessings, art, music, dance, and much May Day revelry!’

    The theme for Malvern dressings this year was trees, and it is wonderful to think that a pagan gesture of gratitude has turned into an art form that not only has the advantage of being part of a community celebration but focuses attention, (including that of tourists)on the history and folklore that we in this country have been prone to treat rather carelessly. 

       At Showborough, the aquifer runs broadly under the gravel drive and, though the field dried out relatively quickly with some sun and wind, there are still puddles on the driveway. Mop them up and they promptly reappear. The water course surfaces most obviously at the lowest level of the garden where it alternately flows or drips into four tanks or ‘viviers’. We speculate that these were once used to keep fish caught in the nearby river Avon (the bard’s Avon) until required for eating. These viviers now have an overflow that runs into a wildlife pond which we dug in hopes of further encouraging the newts that we occasionally encountered in the driveway ditch. (Which, incidentally, makes a very satisfactory habitat for the lovely arum, Zantedeschia aethiopica ‘Crowborough’ - blooming nicely at the moment).

       Unfortunately, our pond ambitions as applied to amphibia - any amphibia - are constantly thwarted by mallard ducks. In the (deliberate) absence of fish, the ducks take the blame for the prompt disappearance of any frogspawn that we introduce. And frankly, as a child, I saw and caught many more newts in a pit pond and the uninviting construction that was the defunct remains of old Mrs Bennison’s middle class aspiration to have a swimming pool in her back garden.

      The apparent dearth of frogs in my here and now is a personal as well as an ecological disappointment because I am oddly entranced by baby frogs. One of my greatest ‘nature’ experiences was over twenty years ago whilst we were walking round the lakes at RMA Sandhurst. Suddenly, the ground was moving and hundreds of tiny frogs were pouring across the path in front of us. It was unbelievable, biblical - the lake ‘brought forth frogs abundantly’. Though they were not, to the best of my knowledge, taken up and rained down upon the soldiery.

      To return to topic, the ‘Winter King’ is still winning in the driveway but, as visitors in summer sandals fastidiously skirt the puddles, one has to consider that the water he contributes to the aquifer has, over the lifetime of this house, sustained the lives of many. Life is a balance and Beltane is a sabbat where two worlds meet - a festival of spring celebrated on the cusp, the confluence between winter and summer, male and female, death and fertility, darkness and light, the spiritual and the earthly. 

      In this perception and mythology of Beltane, we can clearly see the scholarly, philosophical and spiritual principle of  coincidentia oppositorum. Nicholas of Cusa introduced this concept in his work "De Docta Ignorantia" ("On Learned Ignorance") where he explored the limits of human knowledge and the nature of the divine. He argued that God, as the absolute maximum, encompasses all opposites and transcends human comprehension. In God, opposites coincide, meaning that what appears contradictory to human reason is unified in the divine intellect. The idea has roots in earlier philosophical and mystical traditions, including Neoplatonism and the works of mystics such as Meister Eckhart, who also emphasised the unity of opposites in the divine. In other words, at the point where the dark and the light finally come together and blend, we find the miraculous.

       In this more secular world the concept continues to find relevance in various fields, including psychology (e.g., Carl Jung's notion of the integration of the shadow), ecology (the interdependence of ecosystems), and systems theory (the integration of complex, opposing elements into a coherent whole). In essence, coincidentia oppositorum invites us to reconsider the nature of reality, urging us to see beyond apparent contradictions and recognize the deeper unity that underlies them. 

      So, as the sun rises higher in the sky, Beltane is celebrated as a festival which melds diverse and sometimes opposing springtime energies into the vital and all encompassing wholeness of life. Historically, this tended towards becoming a frolicsome dedication to the continuation and propagation of the species, with much ‘binding’ in the marsh and ‘canoodling’ in the woods and jumping over Beltane fires to invoke the forces of fertility and conception, the flames ostensibly purifying or frightening away any adverse spirits/energies. 

         Involved as it is with the flowering and propagation of life, the spirit of Beltane is strongly sexual. The Maypole, traditionally decorated with flowers and danced around by maidens, is a phallic symbol representing the masculine power. In part because of this overt sexuality, Beltane activities like the Maypole were outlawed in much of Britain in the 17th century when the Puritans were in charge. Despite that, one or two towns still have prominent, permanent Maypoles. In fact there has been a resurrection of certain folklore customs of late - including the Scots’ Beltane fire festival.

       The blossom of the native hawthorn tree is commonly called ‘May’ and a great deal of superstition has surrounded both the blossom and the tree itself. There are two native hawthorns Crataegus monogyna and the midland hawthorn Crataegus laevigata. They can be difficult to differentiate, but when I was a child there was a blanket ban on bringing any sort of May blossom into the house. My mother said it was unlucky but she never seemed to know why. According to some, this superstition may have something to do with the fact that the flowers contain a chemical compound called triethylamine that has a fishy odour reminiscent of ammonia and is also produced by decaying flesh thus creating an association with death and bad luck. Yet, some people used May outside of the house to ward off evil, and crowns of hawthorn flowers were worn by young women looking to attract a mate.  ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May’ is a line from an old song. I remember hearing it, but it never really made sense. Nuts in May? But ‘nuts’ is apparently a corruption of ‘knots’, which refers to the knotted and entwined garlands of May flowers. 

      The adoption of the Gregorian calendar meant that the hawthorn is no longer reliably in flower in time for May Day. But this year it was. When I began developing the ground plan for the garden at Showborough, I became aware of a very small hawthorn tree that had obviously grown from seed disseminated by a random vector, possibly a bird. It stood alone and was not in a very convenient place. The obvious conclusion was to remove it. On the other hand, amongst my randomly programmed superstitions, there lurks a hefty one surrounding hawthorn trees themselves - as opposed to their blossom - and it applies particularly to those that haven’t been planted deliberately and which stand alone in the landscape. 

     These are viewed by some as sentinels, marking the threshold between our world and the Otherworld. What’s more, they’re under the protection of the fairies and the blossom can occasionally be seen to move (independent of any breeze) revealing fairy presence. Unfortunately, just as the May blossom can be viewed as either unlucky if brought inside, or attractive if worn as a crown, so fairies can be unpredictable. They might bring you good luck on occasion but you risk punishment/ bad luck if you cut down their hawthorn trees. Or, if you stand alone beside one for too long while you decide whether to cut it down or not. I didn’t entirely withdraw from the area to consider the matter of the tree’s fate, or my own, but as a result of not getting lured into the Otherworld, I made a decision which resulted, twenty years later, in our having an effective looking ‘stand alone’ hawthorn which flowered beautifully on May Day and provided a gathering place for a family Beltane ceremony. 

    The attraction in what is essentially a pagan ceremony lies - as do the other ceremonies marked on the pagan wheel of the year - in a direct connection to the land and the forces of nature. Beltane being a time when the veil between the worlds is thin, farmers drove their cattle past bonfires en route to summer pasture. The fire was supposed to frighten away/transmute adverse spirits or energies, thus promoting the ability of the cattle to thrive and be productive.

    In Northern Europe, the Church co-opted the pagan, Beltane equivalents that took place across parts of Scandinavia and rechristened May Eve after Walburga, a German Abbess who had healing powers and whose remains, upon her canonisation,  were moved to a more appropriate resting place on May Day. Hence Walpurgis night. It was rather a cunning move by the Christian Church - in much the same way as the judicial timing of Christmas.

      Otherwise, the Christian churches are not big on recognising the northern European predisposition to the great outdoors and all that such an inclination entails. I think I might even be right in suggesting that an appreciation of nature in general is not an intrinsic part of many cultures but it flows freely in northern western European blood. Hence, possibly, the re-emergence of Druidism/Druidry which ‘promotes the cultivation of honorable relationships with the physical landscape, flora, fauna, as well as with nature deities, and spirits of nature and place’. As the Druids left no written records of their exact practices the message has been essentially rewritten. It does not, in its new incarnation, exclude Christianity or any other religion. Some Druids identify as Christian. Some are probably pantheists (Everything is God; there's no separation between the divine and the world)some could be panentheists (God is in everything, but there's also a transcendent aspect beyond the world). But with certain honourable exceptions, the C of E has not even shown itself to be particularly interested in its own rogation days.         

     A worldwide coalition of Christian Charities under the umbrella of A Rocha  (A Rocha UK being an offshoot) - is currently stimulating UK churches to green themselves up. According to a website, A Rocha is ‘working to protect and restore the natural world and committed to equipping Christians and churches in the UK to care for the environment.’  

Good for them, and I may be being unfair in suspecting that, by and large, the religious hierarchies are embracing this more out of a sense of worthiness inspired by ESG, short for Environmental, Social and Governance (a set of standards measuring a business's impact on society, the environment, and how transparent and accountable it is) than out of a heartfelt connection to God’s green earth. Fortunately, all creatures great and small won’t get too hung up on the deeper motivations of either A. Rocha or the hierarchies within the various churches. 

     The marking of the seasons and an awareness of the turning of the year has always been a presence in our lives. There is great beauty and emotional resonance in the landscape and its seasonal cycle. Watching the Chelsea Flower Show on television, one sees a lot of beauty and this year there was much talk - talk I have indulged in myself on these very pages - about the health benefits that contact with nature can bring. But that is only one side of the story, and

unfortunately, life as a large animal vet covering wilder areas like Dartmoor, brings home a harsher message about nature. One that does not actually predispose you in favour of gods of any ilk. And it is particularly hard to reconcile with the Christian god - which is probably why the concept of coincidentia oppositorum emerged in the first place. 

      Indeed, evolution itself is a dog eat dog business - an indisputable fact pointed out by Richard Dawkins and the evangelistic atheists. Even if your preferred origin story is creationism, it must be hard to view a transgression involving forbidden fruit and requiring an actual devil as mitigating circumstances when you have to pick up the gory pieces that a fox has left in your henhouse. 

      On occasion, one gets tempted to wholeheartedly agree with Dawkins & Co. But then, on another occasion one is reminded that, inspite of ‘The Selfish Gene’, Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, the instruction manual for life, is miraculous stuff. I quote from  a recent copy of the Scientific American :“Humanity will generate an estimated 33 zettabytes of data by 2025 — that’s 33 followed by 22 zeroes. DNA storage can squeeze all that information into a ping-pong ball, with room to spare.” Compare that, if you will, to the ranks of servers now used and the energy it takes to run those. 

     Conclusion? Nature is indeed miraculous. God like. And, when it is a daily companion that brings both challenge and reward, one is compelled to either move to the city and ignore it altogether or evolve a viewpoint that can accommodate all of its aspects.

     Andrew comes from a long line of West Country farmers. It’s a deep part of who he is and the city is not. I’m afraid I must confess that my own ancestors probably stole more sheep than they reared. Twenty five per cent descended from notorious border reivers (they’re in the history books, by name!) I can take due pride in saying that l’ve definitely treated more sheep than I’ve stolen. But the other prominent characteristic of my temperamental, auburn haired, irresponsible Celtic relatives was/is their propensity for throwing up crystal ball gazers, fortune tellers and seers. My grandfather’s sister, Great Aunt Lizzie, ran off to join a circus when she was barely a teenager. I only knew her briefly when she came ‘home’ to live out her old age. I was a child, but I distinctly remember having to make space in front of that exciting new acquisition, the television set, so Aunt Lizzie’s spirit guide could watch the Lone Ranger with me!

     Conmen to the last, you might say, but for better or worse, those inherited corpuscles of ‘seer’s blood’ just keep whispering to me. 

     I protest, of course - ‘O day and night, but this is wondrous strange …’

 and they respond : ‘…. give it welcome.There are more things in heaven and earth, Glynis,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

    (Apologies to the bard)


    So much to contemplate while gathered round a Beltane fire, trying to construct a meta narrative for life - a narrative greater than the survival of a species in the least painful way possible. Contemplative consideration round a fire may be acceptable but jumping over said fire to rid oneself of unhelpful aspects, tying a ribbon to the hawthorn tree whilst making a personal affirmation with a hint of a request behind it ? Silly? Perhaps.

     But beyond a certain point in their development, all human societies value ceremony - it appears to be universal and intrinsic to our species. And ceremony begets ritual. From a Jungian perspective, ritual is a powerful psychological tool that speaks to the unconscious mind and works at a deep level to inform and promote action/behaviour. Using a ritual that has been passed down for centuries and lives on in the folk memory of a country, reinforces that effect. 

      We came away from our little ceremony clearer on our personal existential questions and more committed to trying to understand the miraculous but complex, and ofttimes conflicted, ‘Garden of Eden’ in which we all live.

   

   Hawthorn is ubiquitous in this country largely because, being prickly, it makes a good hedge to contain stock. Its very name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hagedorn’, which means ‘hedge thorn’ and refers to its use as a boundary. It is conveniently amenable to clipping, provides shelter and food for many species including us ( young leaves in salad, berries in sauces etc) and, in selection, can provide effective and resilient ornamental trees for the garden. I vividly remember my mother’s ‘Paul’s Scarlet Thorn’ with its deep pinky red blossom and I recall one spring in particular when it more than adequately represented the clash of two Maytime worlds as a song thrush gallantly defended the brood she was rearing in it against thieving magpies. 

     Because we are open in May, I am obviously disposed towards plants that perform across the spring/summer divide. The wildling, pink campion serves us (and the bees) very well.  Similarly, ragged robin - shorter and more airy but resilient - even though it’s supposed to prefer wetter soil, it still seems to cope. Lychnis flos cuculi 'White Robin' is a lovely white-flowered variety. We are just about to raise more from seed. They don’t fight as hard in rough company as their native pink counterparts so I’ll be more discerning in placing the new ones. 

       Native to America, dicentras are, nevertheless, May stalwarts for us. Dicentra spectabilis, (now Lamprocapnos spectabilis) commonly known as bleeding heart, is the tallest we have at up to three feet in a fortuitous position, and it comes in white or pink and a deep reddy pink in the variety Valentine. They start to flower in late April and do us well for over a month, blending nicely with ferns and the taller woodland edge flora. They are long lived and resilient in our experience, making nice clumps which adhere to their location neither seeding nor running. Dicentra formosa ‘Aurora’ is smaller - a front line carpeter of sorts, vigorous but not what I would call invasive, with deeply cut foliage and white flowers at up to eighteen inches in a thriving mound. It spreads and copes very well. I have never noticed any seeding. 

      The relative restraint of ‘Aurora’ is in direct contrast to Geranium nodosum which seems to seed rather wildly, springing up anywhere handy, even in the crowns of ferns and hellebores. I imagine that ferns&co find this a little pushy, as do I, but since I bought the G. nodosum at a garden opening precisely because it was surviving in a less than optimum location, I can’t really grumble. Ours have a rather nice violet purple flower and I suspect it is the variety Clos du Coudray. 

      It’s important to draw a distinction between plants being over exuberant and being potentially ineradicable. There are locations where reckless confidence/thuggery in a plant can be useful so, accordingly, we have established a dozen or so nodosums in pots and, in the autumn, these will be planted in a strip of denser, darker woodland. (See photograph)



The darker Woodland Walk

D. ‘Aurora’ and G. nodosum fighting it out. Even the Brunnera is getting overwhelmed.


       We’ll see if it’s cheeky enough to survive and distribute itself down there. By contrast, the variant G. nodosum Silverwood remains in compact low clumps and, with its white flowers, is a very tidy front of border plant for dingy places, whilst also being effective enough for more  prominent ones. It is taking over nicely as the white forget-me-nots are reaching their end.

      Another restrained front liner is tiarella - the foam flower. It is not a fighter so it requires more breathing room than D. ‘Aurora’ but at up to twelve inches by twelve inches, it flowers through May. We have the variety ‘Spring Symphony’ mixed with the unassuming little heuchera ‘White Cloud’, running between low plinths under birch trees and it serves us very well.

     Amongst other woodland edge plants flowering in May, we have Melittis melissophyllum, bastard balm, in the variety  'Royal Velvet Distinction'. Handsome and trouble free at around two feet, it is supposed to be a good food source and attractive to pollinators, but from my own observations of bees, it seems to be greatly surpassed in this by one of its neighbours, the much less distinguished looking Geranium phaeum. G. phaeum has smaller and frankly dull flowers in its basic variety but the stamens are very obviously exposed and bees of all kinds seem to love it. Oddly enough, another plant with very obvious stamens is the early flowering wildling rose Rosa spinosissima 'Dunwich Rose', also known as R. pimpinellifolia ‘Dunwich Rose and yet, even though it benefits from bigger flowers and consequently a much bigger landing pad, I never see a bee or anything else on it. Very odd. 

    Smilacena racemosa, now reclassified as Maianthemum, is another tolerant woodland edge plant, a clumper that has fluffy, creamy-white and fragrant flowers in the first part of May. Common name spikenard, it’s not actually that common and is another American native. It makes 3ft. and slowly spreads but does not seed with us. It has useful foliage that does not seem attractive to anything much in the creature line but, being relatively large, catches a lot of pigeon droppings. I’m beginning to see why people ate pigeons. I had pigeon breast once - it was very palatable, so come the revolution when Sainsbury’s has been looted … 

       Geums are another reliable May standby for us. A couple of different species, chiloense and rivale are well represented in the pantheon of garden geums. G. rivale is native across Europe Asia and America. Selections like Bellbank, Mai Tai, Lemon Drop and more ostentatious ones like Pink Petticoats and Tales of Hex at around a foot high provide reliable front-liners in sun or partial shade as long as it isn’t too dry. The chiloense varieties - Chiloe Island avens  - are from warmer climes but still require decent soil. They are up to 60cm high or taller and encompass old favourites like Lady Stratheden and Mrs J. Bradshaw as well as, I suspect, the relatively recent Chelsea favourite, the sterile hybrid Totally Tangerine which serves an incredibly long turn at this time of year.

        The UK native Geum urbanum, wood avens, is one of our most irritating weeds. In its ability to propagate itself, it rivals G. nodosum but with the added predisposition to commute over wider distances. In short, it gets everywhere here, but its dingy yellow flowers are insufficient to make me in any way sympathetic. Though I’ve read that apothecaries once saw something to it. 

      Writing this, I realise that there is a lot plants I could list but there are gardening books which cover these extensively - including the wonderful selection of irises available to us. Unfortunately, Iris chrysographes - siberian type foliage with deep inky flowers - has proved to be just plain sulky.  We are currently sulking with each other. 

    For reliability, I must just recommend Libertia grandiflora - a New Zealander which makes an evergreen clump, up to 90cm tall, with stiff narrow, grass-like leaves. The flowers are white 2-3cm across and carried on erect stems. They are followed by round seed pods in autumn. All very tidy. The work comes in spring when dead leaves and those a bit burnt by winter weather have to be removed. This can be tedious - a price one frequently pays for an evergreen presence - but this plant makes a wonderful punctuation mark in a border, especially a full stop on a corner. It also grows nicely out of gravel (just rake out any seedlings)  or in a contrived gap in crazy paving/cobbles.

      May boasts two significant RHS shows. I mentioned watching Chelsea on TV and I was surprised not to hear the word rewilding once. Or the word weed. And though there didn’t appear to be any dandelions, the wild effect was evident in the planting style which was prominently naturalistic with a tendency towards what one could call intermingling ie patches of fairly dense planting rendered readable by some colour groupings (as opposed to the traditional herbaceous border groupings of 3, 5 or more of the same plant) and a unifying underplanting which conspicuously included the wood Melick grass in its Siberian form, Melic altissimus var Alba. As one might expect from its colder origins, it is a stronger plant than our native M. uniflora and it has more effective flowers like grains of white rice. I’ve failed with the native, perhaps I’ll see what Siberia can do for us. 

    Umbellifers were prominent across the gardens, many of them are resonant of cow parsley and tap strongly into the theme of naturalism. Woodland edge planting seemed very popular - the ‘Best in Show’ had fifty silver birches in it. 

       In the spirit of mentioning great British events like the Chelsea Flower Show, I have to tip my hat to one that is more local but which is officially regarded as one of the world’s top 7 most bizarre ‘Feats of Strength’ and which is focused around no less an object than a big cheese. And the sport of rolling it down a steep hill in the middle of the countryside. Suicidal people, some of them actual athletes, come from far and near(Japan, Germany, Canada, USA, Shurdington) to plunge after a Double Gloucester which can hit speeds of up to 70mph as it bounces down Cooper’s Hill near Cheltenham. The prizes are negligible but the process attracts an audience of thousands.

      This ostensibly insane annual event has been running for almost 200 years. Does it go back even further to the Romans who have been seen chasing things down the hill? Did Sisyphus promote the original idea as an improvement on his own major pastime? Or does it go back to more homegrown pagan rituals? No one really knows. According to the website, one popular theory is that it was spawned during the early 1800s to celebrate the turn of winter and a fresh batch of crops. Either way, I believe it has been banned twice because of numerous serious injuries but brought back due to widespread, ‘let the devil-take-the-hindmost’ cries for its reinstatement. Makes me proud to be English.

        And so May has moved on, activity by activity, celebration by celebration, plant by plant and, for us, seed by seed as we’ve sown more salads and such perennials as we fancy trying for future years. We are now almost to the end. My father’s birthday was on the 29th of the month, so he was born under the sign of Gemini which is characterized by the Twins, Castor and Pollux, and known for having two different sides that can be displayed to the world. This astrological sign seems more than appropriate for a month in which we are alternately presented with winter and summer. Similarly, coincident with the triumph of the Oak King/Green man of folklore, the 29th of May is Royal Oak day and was designated a public holiday to commemorate the restoration of the English monarchy, as recorded in Samuel Pepy’s Diary on June 1st 1660 : ‘Parliament had ordered the 29th of May, the King’s birthday, to be forever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King’s return to his Government, he returning to London that day." 

     With the passing of Cromwellian Puritanism the ‘Merry Monarch’ helped ensure the support of his subjects with the erection of a massive maypole in London’s Strand. This pole signalled the return of the fun times, and remained standing for almost fifty years.

   Oak Apple Day was still a recognised day when I was young, though there were no longer processions of people carrying sprigs of oak in memory of the story that, in exile, King Charles hid in an oak tree to avoid capture by his enemies. If this was indeed just a story was it coincidence that an oak tree was chosen? Or was it intended to be symbolic of the Oak King - representing the ultimate triumph of a lighter time succeeding the cold stern reign of Cromwell? Who can tell. We become ever more careless with our folk history. Children no longer chant :‘The 29th of May is oak apple day, if you don’t give us holiday we’ll all run away’.  The chant had already passed from most memories by the time I learned that oak apples were growths, or 'galls' on oak twigs. They do actually look like little apples but inside the gall, the larvae of the gall wasp are munching on bits of oak tree though they cause an insignificant amount of damage.

     And so, as the month ends with the passing of a day that once commemorated the return of the ‘oak king’ in the form of Charles II, we move on into summer, enjoying the roses but registering the fact that the summer solstice will be here almost faster than we would like. I’m already making corrective notes and preparing the ground for next year. Because, whichever king is reigning, that’s what gardeners do. 

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