Spring Lockdown: The Elder and Hawthorn

May is a glorious month for trees: the white blossoms of the Hawthorn – sometimes referred to as The May Tree – come into full bloom.

The elder with its sweet-scented blossoms hang heavy ready for keen foragers to revel in the short window of opportunity to make cordials and fermented beverages. Privets, when left to grow, produce small highly scented yellowy-white blossoms that attract the bees and pollinators. Along with the presence of heavy hanging lilacs over garden fences and hedges, May is a reminder from our resident tree community of the multi-sensual gifts of nature’s growth as buds and seedlings begin to flower and shoot, leaves of deciduous trees begin to unfurl.

Our bird community is in full nesting flow: dawn and dusk choruses sound louder with reduced traffic, the busyness of garden birds gathering nesting materials a reminder both of the importance of the ‘wildflowers’ that provide the insect habitats necessary for birds to seek food, but also a reminder that between now and September, tree cutting or felling should be halted so that resident birds are able to nest and rear their broods.

The swifts have returned. Bats have begun their warm evening flypasts for gnats. Despite the hardships that prevail in the human world, the trees in our communities remind human inhabitants that there is an abundance of affirming life, and more importantly in these hard human times, that hope remains. In these uncertain and stressful lockdown times, the mental, emotional and physical comfort gifted by the life enabled through the presence of trees (give a tree a hug, hippy sounding I know, but it feels good!), the presence of our tree community feels especially welcomed.

In this column, I want to share my love of two trees that can be found along the embankments of train tracks and along the canal towpaths. Both marker the transition from spring into summer: to warmer more abundant times whose flowers and berries help sustain through to the autumn: The Elder and the Hawthorn trees.

The Elder and the Hawthorn

These are both wonderful ‘hedge’ trees, and can be seen along canal side towpaths, railways embankments and along the edges of waste-grounds. These hedgerow trees gift a range of culinary and wellbeing gifts for those who wish to research more and forage. John Wright’s (2016) book A Natural History of the Hedgerow gives fulsome detailing of the history of both these trees in the shaping of the landscapes of the British Isles, and of their ascribed mystical properties, natural history importance as well as their well-being and culinary uses. I will summarise some of these below. As a caveat to what follows, if you do find yourself inspired and wanting to forage for the flowers, please do follow the forager’s code of practice, ALWAYS double-check anything that you might want to pick for consumption, make sure you are legally able to access the plants / have permission, that you only ever pick a few specimens from one plant, that your plants are located away from polluting roadsides and are above large dog height (for obvious non-polluting reasons!), and that what you pick is only for your consumption. When in doubt, Don’t. (see Richard Mabey’s classic book, Food For Free if you are interested further).

The Elder (Sambucus nigra)

The Elder is a remarkable tree, and can be identified at this time of year from the multiple headed tiny white flowers that produce a head of flowers all from one stem (panicle). In addition to attracting pollinating insects, ladybirds are often to be found on or near an elder for the presence of green and black aphids that are attracted to the flowers. In turn, birds and bats feed on both the flower heads and insects, and Elder attracts a diverse range of butterfly, moth and fungus – the latter most obviously the edible but highly gelatinous Jelly Ear fungus. I personally err on the side of caution around picking fungus, preferring instead to gather the Elderflower heads that can be consumed when processed, either heads individually when lightly coated in batter and fried), the flowers processed to make a light, highly fragrant sweet cordial or fermented to make a fizzy champagne-like alcoholic homebrew. One only needs to gather one or two dozen dry open flower heads to achieve such a brew, ensuring that all insects are knocked off the stems before processing). There is a wealth of recipes online, but please if you are tempted, do your research and gather responsibly as previously outlined. Flowers left to grow on the Elder will turn over the course of the summer into dark elderberries in early autumn. While these have trace toxic elements and should not be eaten raw, they can be processed to be made into a cordial or dried. Through the process of drying and cooking, toxicity is removed, retaining the rich vitamin C and antibacterial properties which has seen elderberry cordial regarded as a hedgerow staple for making cough syrups.

The Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Hawthorns have a long history of being used in hedge planting. The ‘thorn’ of the name indicative of its spikey think branches that interweave, proving ideal in the history of enclosure for dividing up land and discouraging any trespassers through their tightly interwoven branches. Sometimes referred to historically as whitethorn (and so as not to confuse it with the lower-lying blackthorn from which sloe berries can be gathered), the Whitethorn’s white flowers that also gift it the colloquial name of ‘May Tree’, turn into dark red haw berries which are much beloved by birds, and can be used when processed in making a bitterish but tasty jam or jelly that goes well with cooked meats and cheeses. A word of caution though: the Haw berries are a challenge to gather (protective gloves and a lot of patience!). The young green leaves of the Hawthorn that reveal themselves before the blossom can be eaten in early spring, and in past times the hawthorn was also known as the ‘bread and cheese’ tree because of the nutty flavour of the leaves that provided excellent accompaniment to bread and cheese to supplement past rural diets – once the tree flowers, however, the leaves are too bitter to consume. Unlike the fragrant Elder, the hawthorn’s blossoms, well, stink. I might be kind and say an ‘acquired’ scent, but it has in the past been compared to rotten fish. No matter, the smaller garden birds, the Sparrows and Dunnocks, Robins, Blue and Great Tits and Wrens love this tree for its contorted branches in which to hide from predators. The blackbirds that nest in my back garden Elder love the high tips of the Hawthorn from which to sing their morning and evening song.

DR JN

 

Nature in a time of lockdown

Beginning this article with one of my favourite quotes is a little self-indulgent, but I think quite apt given our current circumstances. George Orwell wrote his essay, ‘some thoughts on the Common Toad’ from which the aforementioned quote is the last paragraph, in 1946. The UK was, at the time of its publication, reeling after five years of war and ongoing attempts to feed its population and to rebuild its society, and a bitterly harsh winter. Earlier in his essay, Orwell notes:

“Life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money.”

We currently find ourselves in unprecedented times, where humans, rather than the non-human world, finds itself lockdown #StayHome#SaveTheNHS #SaveLives being the mantra we must all adhere to if we are to keep ourselves and our loved ones alive.

For every single one of us, what was once our daily normal rhythm and routine is altered: work and social lives, our daily interactions are all altered, resources of money become scarce, and this can lead to heightened levels of stress and anxiety, not great for our immune systems and our general sense of health and wellbeing. Finding ways of thriving under such circumstances is a challenge. Creating new daily rhythms, new structures to our lives can help and we are fortunate to have the natural world as a salve and guide during this time. For us Beestonians, there is a gratitude at living in a part of the world where we have a nature reserve on our doorstep, a river and canal where nature thrives, and street trees and parks and green spaces to take time and appreciate. For myself, the dawn and dusk chorus is my new rhythm. Nature will continue however and whatever humans do, with our without us. Maybe, this lockdown gifts the time to reflect on the purpose of life and how we might live more harmoniously and sustainably aware of our place in the ecology of our local, national and international ecosystems.

For those of us who are able to get outside beyond our homes, a daily maximum two hours of exercise offers up the prospect of noticing anew the natural landscapes that exist in our streets, along towpaths, footpaths and parks. The change in seasons with the change to British Summertime offers more daylight hours, and we have so far been fortunate that the weather has been kind for this time of year. Reduced motorised traffic and fewer vapour trails of aeroplanes in the sky have resulted in reduced air pollution. The dawn and dusk chorus of blackbirds, sparrows and wood pigeons is more audible.

For those unable to leave their homes, opening windows to listen to nature has become important. The sound of birdsong has a proven health benefit in reducing stress to the listener. Being able to focus attention to plants: whether indoor house plants or impromptu pots of windowsill herbs all give a connection to a natural life rhythm. To plant seeds is to enact a sense of hope, to watch new life form and grow offers the prospect that there will be tomorrows, and that while life will inevitably be very tough for the many of us, there remains a constant hopeful gift that the natural world gives: that the earth still orbits the sun, that flora and fauna still grow, and that we, ourselves might find more sustainable ways of living that are slower, kinder more sustaining in the future for ourselves, our families and our communities more generally.

On my walks around Beeston, I have renewed pleasure and attachment to our trees, many of which are or have been in bloom: cherry trees, magnolias have all been heavy of bow with blooms, large bees and hover files seem more present as they gather nectar and pollinate plants. Given my #TreesOfBeeston column, I would ask that during this lockdown time, TheBeestonian offers a space where we can share our favourite #TreesOfBeeston. Post on Twitter (linking @Beestonian, hashtag #TreesOfBeeston with your favourite trees you have seen during lockdown and why you love them. It would be good to map this renewed appreciation and focus positive attention to the wonderful trees we have and value as part of our local geography. It would be a bit like a little Mass Observation exercise, a local voluntary survey of the trees most appreciated, that can then be mapped, comments collated, as a reminder that the natural world in and around Beeston helped human Beestonians through this time.

I know many, including myself, have found salve and respite in gardening. To be able to plant and begin to grow seeds that will eventually grow into herbs or vegetables for later eating in the summer is to connect with the earth and to feel a little more in control of where our food might be coming from. For those of us who enjoy foraging for wild garlic, nettles and garlic mustard and dandelions, it is an opportunity to appreciate the wild plants that somehow manage to return and survive in the cracks of pavements and along grass verges (although picking these might be bad for one’s health so best leave these for the birds and bees). While saddened that events like Greening Beeston’s seed swap could not take place, finding local activities celebrating the restorative and sustaining power of nature during lockdown has been affirming. Incredible Edible Beeston had only just begun planting its first community patch, but its members can be found on Instagram and Facebook alongside Beeston Eco-Action Team, sharing advice on gardening, planting, growing. Such times give renewed focus that plant lore and knowing how to grow herbs and vegetables is as vital to resilience as knowing and appreciating the trees and natural ecosystems in and around Beeston. My own #ApothecaryAllotmentGarden project: growing as much of my own wild plants and veggies as I am able in my small back garden has become vital to my mental and physical wellbeing. Connecting with others who share these passions means that as a community, we are able to collectively offer civic support to others, share our plant and nature knowledge and grow in sustainable resilience through such trying times.

Stay safe, keep well and look for the enriching natural world in your daily lives.

Dr JN

References: Orwell, G (1946) Some Thoughts on The Common Toad. First published in Tribune, 12 April 1946. From the Complete Works, XVIII, 2970, p. 238. https://www.orwellfoundation. com/the-Orwell-foundation/Orwell/essaysand-other-works/some-thoughts-on-thecommon-toad/

Planting trees to connect our community

“A culture is no better than its woods.” W.H. Aude

When the character of Tony (Ricky Gervais) speaks with Anne (Penelope Wilton) at the end of series 1 of the Netflix comedy Afterlife, he speaks about his change of heart from wanting to commit suicide to wanting to live “You can’t not care about the things you actually care about” he says deciding to “make my little corner of the world a slightly better place”. Anne replies “That’s all there is”, before quoting a saying – which is, in part, the core of this Trees Of Beeston article – :

“A society grows great when old [wo]men plant trees, the shade of which they know they will never sit in. Good people do good things for other people. That’s it” Anne offers by way of summary.

What sustains us all is not simply in serving ourselves now, but in passing on hope and knowledge that might make life better both in the here and now and into the future. Tree planting, growing seeds, both actual and metaphorical – an idea, a practice, a new habit – is an act of hope-giving, for the person practising it, and for the wider world, they interact with.

True to my new year Trees of Beeston commitment, I put on my gardening gloves and wellies and ventured beyond my own back yard out on a cold and damp January morning, to help WeDigNG9, Broxtowe Borough Council and the Beeston Civic Society complete planting up an area of the Hetley Pearson recreation ground which will, we hope, transform over time into a diverse wooded spinney area to be protected for wildlife and humans alike.

Recent storms Ciara and Dennis serve to remind us that our climate and habitat are under threat from increasing extreme weather, demanding a change in our habits to enact sustainable resilience in how we live our daily lives. Nurturing the trees we have, and planting more, serve as a long-term act of defence from the water-logging and flooding: Trees hold the soil, absorb surface water, their branches and leaf coverage provide canopy cover that absorbs; they breathe in the CO2 and breathe out the oxygen we need. They provide habitats for wildlife: food and shelter for over-wintering insects, birds and mammals. They enrich our lives.

It is a reminder that, as humans, we thrive when we connect with other lives. Whether those lives are human or non-human in the form of plants and animals, there is a marked improvement to peoples mental and physical well-being in getting outdoors and doing things for the greater good.

“Civicmindedness is something that has sustained generations.”

Civic means relating to the duties or activities people have to their local town or area. Civic-mindedness is something that has sustained generations and help shape and make the landscapes we have in Beeston, Broxtowe, and beyond. We are all part of an ecosystem, whether in Beeston or beyond, and our energies and activities go to make it. We all have agency and the capacity to make Beeston more sustainable, and in our own ways, contribute. Judy Sleath, stalwart of the Beeston Civic Society [beestoncivicsociety. org.uk] tells me as we plant tree saplings, that tree planting has long been something the Beeston Civic Society has been involved with since its inception in 1972. Over the recent decades, it has invested funds and worked alongside Broxtowe Borough Council and public organisations such as our local primary schools in ensuring trees are planted for the benefit of all in our town.

The day before I join in, Judy and Nick Worthi from Nottinghamshire County Council’s Greenwood forestry initiative to grow a community forest across Nottinghamshire [www.greenwoodforest.org.uk/images/ content/pdfs/greenwood_strategic_plan. pdf] were planting with school children from Beeston Rylands so these young Beestonians learn how to plant trees and, in turn, have a local educational field trip finding out about the locale and learning about the soil, the importance of worms and how nature connects to make habitable worlds for us as humans and animals to coexist.

The site is perfect. The tree saplings planted – a mixture of oaks (funded by the Beeston Civic Society), Hawthorns, Horse Chestnuts, Field Maples – will do well here, situated near the attenuation pond. The pond not only provides a home for insects, amphibians, and birds, but extends a green corridor from neighbouring Attenborough nature reserve to the surrounding gardens and parks of our beloved town, but also serves to absorb and collect any overflow from the Trent when the rains fall and the river floods. The trees act as natures sponges, provide the root systems to secure the soil, provide the plant cover needed to absorb the water and so protect the neighbouring low lying houses and flats.

This is not simply a cosmetic intervention, but an act of protection and anticipatory future-proofing for local residents as extreme weather conditions arise and to secure and protect future Beestonians, to gift them shade, and nature and natural spaces in which to take solace and find comfort. More than ever such spaces need to be made.

So it is encouraging that it appears our civic and local authority are on side with this idea to begin planting trees and securing the future of the arboreal landscape of our town.

If you are keen to add a tree to your own garden then Broxtowe Borough Council [www.facebook.com/broxtoweboroughcouncil] also have a tree planting scheme for residents. This is a great opportunity to assist in repopulating our borough with trees of all kinds, and for getting intergenerational family, friends and neighbours involved, especially if there are no street trees on your street. Last November the announcement went out on social media of the availability of 500 fruit trees, all of which got snapped up in minutes. I spoke with Hugh from Broxtowe Borough Council who was distributing the final much sought-after fruit tree saplings to Broxtownians near where the tree planting activities were taking place at the recreation ground. All the trees were collected and Hugh hoped that the scheme would return this November with possibly some ornamental trees available.

So If you are keen to grow your own tree, make sure to look up the scheme on the council’s Facebook page in the autumn where, it is hoped, ornamental and possibly more fruit trees will be available to apply for. In the meantime, you can always get involved with greening Beeston activities.

If trees seem too much, why not get yourself some seeds and plant small: whatever you think might grow well that you like (personally I am keen on my herbs so I can eat them as well as grow them!) There are seed swap events across Nottinghamshire over the coming weeks as seeds turn into seedlings and the nights get lighter, I would suggest getting in touch with Beeston EcoAction Team (BEAT) on social media [www.facebook.com/groups/2181563685474115] or Greening in Beeston [greeninginbeeston. weebly.com]

So happy growing, happy connecting and here’s to a Beeston and Broxtowe where sustainable living and tree protection and planting remains a focused civic tradition into the future!

DR JN