Winifred Letts’ poetry was on the primary school curriculum and is therefore remembered by generations of young people. “A balmy day…and the wet grass smells good/Crushed by my two bare feet/As the rain drips, drips, drips from the eaves.” And: “The spider’s web / Is a sparkling net / The path in the woods is wet.”
es, it may still be a mild day but the south wind does not necessarily have a honeyed mouth. A chill in the air remains for a few days in an unpredictable month. SE Bates wrote of the “cream lifted from all the milt of May”, but in some parts there is rain all day flooding the hedgerows weighted with dripping white hawthorn blossoms – ribbons of purity of the landscape where the plantations of Quickthorn of the limits mark fields of the past.
The heavy, sweet-and-sour white blanket of fleurettes is timely bread and cheese, as May 12 marked the original May Day before the 1752 calendar revision, losing 11 days. But hawthorn (Monogynous Crataegus) is notoriously erratic and is strongly influenced by late winter and spring temperatures. In some years, there may be a flourishing swing from the last quarter of April to the end of that month.
The flowering bush of the Fête de Bealtaine marks a time of fertility rites and rituals of wreaths of flowers with red anthers and budding red berries. Superstitions still hold that the flower should not be allowed to cross a threshold – a name for a spray was mother-to-diea Welsh version is blodau marw mam (flowers, death, mother).
Emerging Christian practices brought gatherings of spring flowers to honor images of the Virgin Mary with, in this country, children making May altars for housecoats and classrooms – an annual ritual carried out with enthusiasm. Parents and teachers encouraged the youngsters in their artistic displays of flowers and herbs. Does it remain popular, I wonder?
Poet John Hewitt was looking for a bold move in may altar as he saw the “little bouquets on the top of the cupboard”, but his heart “longs for the pagan thorn that no one dares to break a spray and bring”.
A petticoat to the May bush is Queen Anne’s lace or cow parsley (Sylvan Anthrisque), prolific on the edges of the road escaped from the deadly blades of landscaping machines. The good queen seems to have little to do with the plant, although one story has it that her lace crochet attendants actively copy the intricate patterns of vegetation. Another religious link, Saint Anne, the mother of Mary, is the patron saint of lacemakers. The plant is also called Notre Dame lace.
Cow parsley was also part of May’s altar bouquet – although there are poisonous specimens in its plant family such as hemlock, cowbane and hemlock waterdrop.
In the altar vases were also found stalks of lanceolate plantain with its dark, ogival flower head, and with which the children played a teasing game called “soldiers” where the stalk is lodged under the head, quickly pulled and fired at his opponent. This could result in a tingling cheek and was not safe for the eyes.