Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #7

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"Many a long hard-working day
Life brings us! and many an hour of play;
But they never come now together.
Playing at work, and working in play,
As they came to us children among the hay,
In the breath of the warm June weather.

Oft with our little rakes at play,
Making believe at making hay,
With grave and steadfast endeavour;
Caught by an arm, and out of sight
Hurled and hidden, and buried light
In laughter and hay for ever."

Dora Greenwell, Haymaking (1865)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)
Summer Picture 7

I’m a bit excited. I accept that, as sources of excitement go, this is pretty tame but this picture, Summer picture 7, is the one selected to represent all of Summer’s glory as the cover picture for the book “What to Look for in Summer”. And I contend that it would be difficult to argue with swallows, roses, elderflowers, butterflies and hay-making as iconic images of a British summer scene. For the farmer in the picture, on his little tractor, is indeed making hay while the sun shines, as high Summer flourishes all around him.

Swallows were featured in an earlier post, when their arrival was noted in Spring picture 12, so I’ll say no more here except to note that, as they are very busy hawking flies in midsummer, they are probably feeding young, perhaps by now a second brood, the first having flown the nest already. The Meadow Brown butterflies in the foreground (Latin name: Maniola jurtina) are identified in my copy of the State of the Butterflies of Britaina dn Ireland report (produced by a partnership led by Butterfly Conservation) as the most abundant butterfly species in Britain (i.e. the most individuals recorded in surveys), as well as the second most widely distributed (in terms of the number of 10 kilometre squares where the species is recorded), after the Green-veined White butterfly (watch out for your cabbages, missus!).  Since the Summer book was first published (my copy says 1960, exactly 50 years ago this year), the Meadow Brown has been doing well. A generalist species of grassland habitats including downland, heathland, coastal dunes and undercliffs, hay meadows, roadside verges, hedgerows, woodland rides and clearings, waste ground, parks, gardens, and cemeteries, its population is estimated to have increased by 28% between 1976 and 2004 (although there was a slight decrease of -5% in the final few years of that period).

Of the wild plants featured in this picture, the accompanying text says: “The wild, briar rose and elder are the flowers that most distinctly speak of June and midsummer.” The fact is that, as you’ll notice, we are in July and midsummer is nearly three weeks behind us – a typical condition of this series is me struggling to keep up with the timetable of the books, consoling myself only with the fact that the timing of natural events in a Scottish summer is likely to be lagging behind those down south by at least a couple of weeks. As such, even last week, I could look out of my window and see numerous elder bushes in the park, resplendent with their umbrellas of creamy white flowers. And yet,only this weekend, the lovely O and I struggled to find the few remaining accessible flower heads on those elder bushes, to make a final batch of elderflower cordial.

The elder (Sambucus nigra) is indeed an important food plant in the British countryside, which I talked about in Spring here, and promised to talk about in more detail once it appeared in flower in this current Summer picture. The black shiny elder berries that occur later in the year in great bunches like miniature grapes have long been a mainstay of the home-made wine manufactories of rural Britain. But it is the flowers that O and I relish and cherish – in particular, we make litres and litres of fragrantly-scented elderflower cordial every June and July, aiming to produce enough to see us through the long, cold winter with regular tastes of summer sunlight captured in golden liquid form. We’ve managed to produce about 15 litres this year. We use a recipe which includes the use of citric acid powder to prevent any fermentation.

Last year, for the first time, we also made elderflower champagne, which IS, obviously, allowed to ferment. I confess that, although we made about 6 litres, we haven’t tried it yet, even though it is supposed to be drinkable after a week! Now I’m a bit scared, both of the gas pressure in the 2 litre plastic bottles, and the potential alcohol content. But, versatile wild crop that it is, the elder’s flowers can also be eaten, both raw and dipped in batter and deep fried as tempura (which is just a posh way of a Scottish man justifying yet another opportunity dip a piece of perfectly innocent food in batter and deep fry the hell out of it! Deep-fried Mars Bar, anyone? No thanks!). I have to say, elderflower tempura was pleasantly, surprisingly, tasty! The raw flowers are also OK, but I do find the texture a bit odd. Incidentally, the elder is also home to the edible fungus known colloquially as “jew’s ear”, a bit of unfortunate anti-Semitic nomenclature, if ever I heard one. This weekend, we found a neglected corner of King’s Park in Stirling where a few old elder trees are covered in growths of this fungus, some of which, inevitably, we are going to end up eating! I’ll let you know how it goes...

The New Atlas of the Flora of Britain and Ireland indicates that, since 1962 when the original Atlas came out, the overall distribution of elder hasn't changed, but that it is impossible to tell introduced populations from natural ones, as it is both widely planted by people and also spread widely as seeds in bird droppings.

The wild rose dominating the bottom left corner of the picture is the dog rose, Rosa canina, although that Latin name hides a more complicated story, where a number of related groups of wild roses are brigaded under the rosy collective of a Rosa canina “aggregate”. There are also a number of hybrids of Rosa canina and other rose species and, indeed, other, completely separate wild rose species, all also referred to as “dog roses”! No-one said it had to be easy... Anyway, Rosa canina is the commonest and most widespread of these. The New Plant Atlas , while pointing out its complicated family relationships, suggests that its distribution is probably stable over the period since the publication of the 1962 Atlas. Maybe more in Autumn on rose hips and their contribution to our wild food larder...

The final element of the picture worthy of comment is the hay-making process in the background, not least to point out how the general process remains basically the same 50 years later, even although the machinery has changed, particularly the tractor. Grow grass, cut it when the weather is dry, let it dry out a bit in rows on the ground where it was cut, then gather it up to store it. Now, hay is baled; back when this picture was painted, it was a slightly different storage method, as you wil see in the next Summer picture.

A final sartorial point to note – the farmer on his tractor is wearing a pair of red dungarees – surely all farmers now wear blue ones! In fact, the boiler suit has probably largely replaced dungarees as the favoured protection for the hard working agriculture operative! And I am not sure if the flatcap, which seems to be ubiquitous on all agricultural employees featured in these four Ladybird books, has survived through to today as an obligatory piece of farmer’s protective clothing (although, obviously, still much loved by rural huntin’, shootin’ toff-types!).

1 comment:

  1. So, a little update on the "Jew's ear" fungus mentioned above in this post as an edible fungus growing on elder. The delectable O tells me that its name actually comes from "Judas's Ear". Yes, as in Judas Iscariot, who supposedly hanged himself from an elder tree in his guilt and shame, according to folklore. Though the pedantic biogeographer in me does wonder what the elder was doing growing in Palestine? Still, never mind, not such an anti-Semitic name as I feared. I'd guess it went from "Judas's Ear" to "Jude's Ear" to "Jew's Ear". Does that sound plausible to you? I reckon it has a ring of authenticity! SNB


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