Tag Archives: flowers

Heading towards the solstice

Recently I wrote about the limitations I’m facing around pilgrimage and my desire to see some of the specific seasonal plants. There are plants I become particularly obsessed with. However, there are seasonal plants outside my door. While my ideas about how I want to engage with the season have been thwarted, my actual ability to engage with the season isn’t really that compromised.

A very short distance from my home, the buttercups are flowering exuberantly. I don’t have to go far to see how glorious they are in the fields, even if I don’t get into the fields. The cranesbill is out, and the campions. There are foxgloves on one of my regular routes. They are glorious, and extravagant, and I am very fond of them as part of the summer.

I have a small pot garden, and a few wild seasonal plants have shown up there – granny bonnets, wood avens, ragged robin…  I’ve got small plants whose names I don’t know cheerfully blooming. The grass is full of daisies, and I’m also really appreciating the groundsman who doesn’t mow very often and lets things flower.

I may yearn for particular encounters with specific plants and landscapes, but the season is here. Summer is right outside my door. Seasonal expressions are all around me. It’s important not to lose track of that through focusing on what I can’t have.


Spring and Cowslips

How spring plays out in terms of wildflowers varies a lot from year to year and from place to place. This year, the celandines and violets have appeared in remarkable profusion around my home, and I’m still seeing a lot of them. Fruit trees have been abundant with flowers as well. I don’t have a fantastic visual memory but even so I’m confident I’ve seen more flowers on blackthorn and soft fruiting trees than I normally would. However, I hear from friends that their apple flowers locally are late.

In the last week I’ve seen my first buttercups and cowslips of the season.  I’m watching for the kingcups, but I’ve not seen any of those yet. Soon, it will be time to go looking for orchids. Last year I only found one bee orchid, which was an unusually low number.

There must be a lot of variables impacting on plants. How the winter went, what the spring temperatures are like, how much rain there is – and different plants are all adapted to thrive in slightly different conditions. Sometimes, if you know a plant well you might have a sense for how it will respond to the conditions as a year unfolds. I don’t have that depth of connection and am generally surprised.

I watch with interest to see what flowers when, and enjoy watching for new plants as the year progresses. The cleavers seem to be doing really well this year, and the garlic is growing large and lush.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to get onto the hilltops for the bluebells and wood anemones, but remain hopeful.

Cowslips are especially significant for me, because they were rare when I was a child. A plant pushed to the edge, they have somehow made a comeback during my life and as such are a symbol of hope, to me.


Summer subtleties

Once we get into summer, the season can feel a bit like a solid block of experience. There have been flowers since the spring, there are flowers now. We may look for early signs of autumn instead for a sense of the seasonal. Those are certainly present – the hawthorn and elder both have small green fruit starting to swell and ripen.

In practice, there’s a lot of nuance in the flowers at this time of year. Seeing it depends on paying attention to the details. There are big swathes of flowers out there, but some flowers come later in the season than the others. The purple loosestrife is at its peak right now, while the meadowsweet is starting to die back. The teasels are flowering, the thistles are producing fluffy seeds. On the ragwort, the cinnabar moth caterpillars are large, and fat, or disappearing as they head for cocoons.

Every day, something is different. Seeing the difference depends on re-visiting and familiarity. Seasonal shifts are subtle processes and the less time a person spends looking for them, the harder it is to read.

There are more teenage birds about, but some birds are into their second and third clutches, so there are young birds around at all different stages of development.

One of the hardest things for me this year has been seeing which trees haven’t come into leaf at all. Some of them were always late, and I kept watching and waiting and hoping. There is a large, ancient hawthorn that stands beside a spring near one of the paths. It was a magical tree, but this summer there have been no signs of life. I don’t know when exactly it died, or how long it may continue to stand in this state. Life goes on within in it and on it – it is still a habitat and still supporting a lot of other life.

Dying away is not just an activity for the autumn. The grass on the commons is already well under way with its own death. Many of the early flowers have already died back. Summer is as much a time of death as it is a time of high energy.


Flowers in the ice

This point in January often combines the first signs of spring with some of the most intense manifestations of winter. And so we get flowers in ice.

Yesterday I noticed that the hazel catkins are opening. They’ve gone from small, tight green potential to open, yellow and active. The alder trees have catkins on too, and the tips of their branches are slightly reddened by the presence of those flowers. Trees have male and female (from our perspective) catkins. If you’re new to all this, have a look at this article – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/12/which-trees-have-catkins-and-how-to-tell-them-apart/

Yesterday I also saw my first snowdrops of the year, some daffodils in bloom, a primrose and I’ve seen a lot of bulbs putting up leaves in the last few days.

This morning the temperature was down to minus 3, and the frost that was on the ground yesterday is still here. Puddles have become ice sheets. The mud has frozen solid. This is the most wintery it’s been this season, and yet at the same time, the first flowers are appearing. That’s normal, and I might choose to read some significance into it.


The final flowers

There are flowers on the brambles still, and I’ve seen ragged robin and campion in the last few days. At some point, I will have seen the last of these. There are already summer flowers I won’t see again until next year.

First appearances are easier to spot than final showings. When will I see my last bat before they go into hibernation? When will I see my last swift or swallow for this year? It’s not usually until some time after the event that having seen the last one – or the last one for this year – becomes obvious. Spring announces its new arrivals, but as the autumn moves in, those key points of final sightings just aren’t so clear. It means the letting go process is much less defined than the welcoming in.

Of course there are things to welcome in autumn – I’ve seen my first conkers. Leaves changing colour, fruits and nuts ripening, and later in the year, the arrival of winter migrants – these will all be easier to spot. But, the end of summer feels like a falling away without quite knowing what you’ve lost.

It’s useful to reflect on this and spend some time with it. In so many aspects of life, we don’t know when we’ve had the last, or the best of something. People we don’t get to say goodbye to. Things that will never come again. It means that you don’t know how important a meeting is, or a parting, because we never really know who, or what we will see again.

It’s so important not to be complacent about things – you never know when something important may leave forever. Hopefully, the swallows will be back next year, along with the wildflowers and the new leaves. Even that doesn’t feel so certain anymore.


Flowers, margins and trees

Where I live, we’re now at the point in the year when the summer flowering has begun in earnest. Many of the spring flowers appear in the woodlands – getting in before the canopies closer over. The summer flowers can generally be found at the margins – woodland edges, alongside hedges and on road verges. My locality is blessed with some large open commons where orchids and cowslips bloom in profusion at this time of year. We also have a lot of fields that are rich in wildflowers.

There’s been a great deal of intense growth in recent weeks. The cowparsley now comes up to my waist. The cleavers are, where they can lean on anything, about the same height. Ragged Robins, campions, great hairy willowherb, tall grasses and all manner of other wild flowers abound. Beautiful to look at, sometimes challenging for the nose and eyes!

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Margins tend to be the places with most biodiversity. The edges of woodlands are especially lively places. What ideally we need are large woodlands with plenty of room for open glades, thus maximising the scope for life. Butterflies especially like this kind of habitat. One of the reasons cutting small areas of woodland in cycles is good, is that you open up more margins.

Of course to many people this seems unnatural – humans manipulating nature. However, you have to consider what is no longer in most of our woods. We don’t have wild cows, let alone giant aurochs. We don’t have wild boar in most woods, or wild horses or ponies or anything else that might clear out areas of low growth. We used to have these larger mammals. We also used to have beavers.  It is their activity, in the past, that would have created clearings, and in the case of beavers, would have created pools as well.

The other major mechanism for naturally creating clearings is the death of old, massive trees. For this, you have to have a steady supply of massive ancient trees. We don’t have those. There are no giants whose falling will open up a large area – certainly not in most smaller woodlands. We’ve got hundreds of years of work to do if we want to restore them.

Our woodland ecosystems are damaged. If we want the best woodland we can have – and by best I mean most diverse and able to support the most life – we have to help. At least for now. Perhaps one day we’ll have enough woodland to have room to support the boar again. Perhaps the European program to recreate aurochs from what’s left in the DNA of domestic herds will work out… perhaps we’ll have our beavers back to manage water systems and thin out trees. If we get there, we won’t need people to do the work, but in the meantime, people are needed to make up for what’s missing. We have to compensate for the mistakes our ancestors made.

The image in this blog came from The Woodland Trust (with permission) and you can find out more about how The Woodland Trust takes care of woods here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/about-us/ancient-woodland-restoration/ancient-woodland/why-is-ancient-woodland-special/ 


Signs of spring

Where I live, there have been many signs of spring during the last week. It would be normal to see celandines, catkins and snowdrops by this time in any year. Some of the fruit trees blossoming don’t seem too early either, but I’m seeing other signs of spring that I wouldn’t normally expect before March, and sometimes later.

There are leaves unfurling. I found a hawthorn tree with quite a lot of leaves on it. Willows are starting to come out and other plants as well. These are early.

The cleavers are up – again, late February doesn’t seem like quite the right time for this, but here they are. The garlic is also starting to show leaf tips emerging. That’s very early.

Yesterday I went walking and at several points was down to bare arms because I was too hot. On this occasion, my bare skin cannot be ascribed to a hot flush. It was warm enough that Tom took off his jumper. Tom is the sort of person to wear three layers of jumpers in the winter. He definitely isn’t having hot flushes.

This, I suppose, is one of the kinder faces climate change can wear. Being warm and enjoying the sunlight is so nice, that it is easy to overlook what’s causing it. A bit warmer in February is pleasant. A bit warmer in July – as with last July, can be overwhelming and lethal.

We had a frost overnight. That’s considerably more normal than warm sun and bare arms.

We all know there’s a climate crisis. And yet, all around me I see people carrying on absolutely as normal. The roads are chocked with cars at busy times. Perhaps everyone is waiting for someone else to sort it out.


Wildflower wealth

The horse chestnuts have been extraordinary this year. Every tree I’ve seen in walking distance of my home has had an incredible array of flower candles on it. Big flowers at that, in totally outrageous profusion. The hawthorn is the same. Intensities of flower that I cannot recall ever having seen before. It’s not just one tree, it’s been every tree of this type that I’ve encountered for miles around.

On the path margins, the plants are growing with startling enthusiasm. There’s a density of lush green growth out there. The grass on the commons is thick, and tall. Everywhere I look, I see explosions of rioting plant life.

Perhaps this in some way because of the late and cold spring. Perhaps the abundance is because snow on the ground soaks in more effectively. Perhaps we have just the right pattern of sun and rain to promote growth. I don’t know.

What I do know is how it impacts on me. What a sense of richness and blessedness I have every time I step outside and see a wildly bedecked hawthorn, or the density of wildflowers on the verges. I experience this as personal abundance, personal wealth. It’s an intense, bodily reaction to the world around me.

Wealth in money is such a cold, abstract feeling. Numbers on a screen. Largely meaningless. Wealth as an experience of nature is immediate and so very real. I might own numbers of a screen, I do not own flowers in a wood, but the latter enriches me far more than the former can.

It is so normal to see people describe the world of numbers in bank accounts as the real world. A bank balance does not feed you. No matter how much money we have, we all depend fundamentally on the bounty of the land. The real world has soil in it.


Flowers for the solstice

One of my ongoing issues with the Pagan concept of the wheel of the year is that it can focus a person’s sense of the seasonal down to eight key days. Outside, the cycle of the seasons is a process from day to day, and if you aren’t engaging with it day by day, you’ll miss things. That in turn can help perpetuate the simpler eight key points narrative because we don’t tend to see the things we aren’t looking for.

The demoiselle flies (smaller than dragonflies, but different from damselflies because they have dramatic black wings) tend to show up a few days before my birthday. A week ago there was a big hatching. A couple of days ago I saw my first dragonflies of the season. Most of the garlic has died back, most fledglings are now out of the nest, but there are still clutches of new ducklings hatching. That’s true where I live, for this year, but next year may be different.

This year I have particularly noticed the arrival of cranesbill flowers and meadowsweet. As there’s a lot of foliage growing, they were able to do all their leafy growth without my spotting them, but now the flowers are out, the plants are a distinctive presence. The purples of the cranesbill flowers, the misty clouds of fragrant meadowsweet. I didn’t have them in my head as a solstice flower, I don’t remember exactly when they appeared last year. I tend to think of meadowsweet as something that blooms later on, and perhaps it is. Many of the usual rhythms are being thrown out by climate change.

You have to catch a cranesbill just right to see why it has the name – the flowers themselves are nothing like cranes. It’s the forming flower bud, which, before opening, looks just like a head and beak. There an edge plant, so look for them in hedgerows, along shaded footpaths and at woodland edges.

More about cranesbill here – https://shop.reallywildflowers.co.uk/products-page/wildflower-plug-plants/meadow-cranesbill/

And a lovely piece on meadowsweet here with herbal and mythical properties https://whisperingearth.co.uk/2012/07/06/meadowsweet-queen-of-the-meadow-queen-of-the-ditch/


Pilgrimage to the flowers

In previous years I’ve managed both an Easter and a Beltain pilgrimage. The Easter walk talks me via two Iron Age hill forts to Gloucester Cathedral, and is very much a pilgrimage honouring the ancestors. Like most modern Pagans, I have my share of Christian ancestors, and the cathedral itself has family stories associated with it. The Beltain pilgrimage is all about wildflowers – bluebells, wood anemone, wild garlic. This year the flowers came before Easter, and I had to choose. I chose to honour the unsettlingly early flowering and to make my ancestral pilgrimage at some later point in the year.

Part of the route for my Beltain pilgrimage takes me along the edge of the Cotswolds, through an area dense with barrows. People have been walking that way – but not that path, I assume! – for thousands of years.

The flowers I go out to see, the garlic, anemones and bluebells, are all indicators of ancient woodland. It’s not my motivation, but it is certainly a bonus. Beech trees are not long lived, so the age of trees round here is not an easy indicator of woodland age.

It was a beautiful day. Bluebells in swathes, like a misty sea in the Woodchester valley. The scent of them subtle and gorgeous. Very small lambs out in the fields. We sat near some of them (but not too near so as not to cause alarm) to have lunch. As we ate, a raven sang to us from nearby trees, pausing for the odd fly past to make sure we didn’t miss any of its raven-ness. It’s such a distinctive voice though that we didn’t need to see in order to know. Later, we found the heronry, which we’d been looking for, and several herons who looked to be in the business of making more herons.

I have personal stories and family stories about Woodchester Valley. I have folklore and history as well. Repeatedly visiting an area at a specific time of year adds to the web of stories as things happening to us are woven into the tale of our relationship with the land. The year we saw a buzzard take a rabbit. The variations we’ve walked, the people we’ve walked with…

We walk fairly quietly, but it is about engagement and engagement includes the people around us. The valley is managed, and home to a lot of wild things. There was a large flock of tufted ducks, bigger than any group we’ve seen there before. Last autumn there were dragonflies in great number. It’s not a pilgrimage to somewhere, but a big, circular walk. It’s a pilgrimage into the land and the season, a deepening of relationship with place and a commitment to holding that connection.