Spring is the season of signs. From the first twitchings of new life on the forest floor after winter’s solstice, there’s a successional spring-tide of awakenings to be sensed and savoured.
Perhaps, first amongst the many floral harbingers of spring is the primrose – literally ‘first flower’ – which graces woodlands and edge-lands any time from New Year to early summer. In January a walk through the woods is often punctuated by pleasure the tantalising peep of primrose petals – lemon-sherbet yellow amongst the leaf litter – their pale purity a vivid contrast against the dark brown of the dead year. Primroses were once one of the most commonly picked wildflowers, and rural custom dictated that offering someone a posy with less than thirteen blossoms was a thinly veiled insult. Nowadays, it feels wrong to do anything other than admire their vernal exuberance in the places where they unexpectedly appear leading us deeper into the woods; like florescent Will-o’-the-Wisps.
On willow trees and hazel coppices catkins, which formed the year before and were held tightly inconspicuous through winter, now unfasten and fluff-up to join the spring presage. Dangling down like lambs’ tails (another of their evocative vernacular names), they dance animatedly at the slightest stirring in the spring air. Infused with associations of fertility, folklore holds that a profusion catkins portends an abundance of babies; ‘plenty of catkins; plenty of prams’.
A little later than the first flowers, a walk in the woods is imbued by audio anticipation; ears straining in hope to hear the first returning chiffchaff of the year. Its distinctive call – like squeaking sneakers – is a springtime serenade that emotionally translates as: ‘all’s well with the world once more’. If we’re lucky we might also catch sight of a brimstone butterfly, fluttering slowly through the open spaces of the trees like a fragment of sunshine; its buttery yellow colour allegedly giving rise to the word butterfly itself. According to Tove Jansson’s literary creature, Moomintroll, to see a yellow butterfly as your first of the year foretells a fine year ahead. Amongst so many numinous seasonal auguries, who could argue?
As spring unfurls and uncurls the leaves of beech trees become luminous lime-green in the sunlight; like the stained glass windows of a great green cathedral. The warmer air is suffused with the sweet and savoury smell of wild garlic, also known as Ramsons, emerging in huge swathes under the trees and adding a welcome tasty tang to the sensation of spring.
In other leafy places, but rarely amongst wild garlic, bluebells punctuate the palette of spring greens with their haze of intoxicating blue hues. Bluebell flowers were once worn on lapels to celebrate the feast day of England’s patron saint – St George – and they generally still chime in time for the 23rd April. Older folklore associates bluebells with the faerie folk, and it’s claimed that if you ever actually hear them ringing in the woods then you’ve inadvertently walked out of this world and into the ‘otherworld’…
Originally published in Leaf! - a newsletter produced by The Woodland Trust and Common Ground: https://treecharter.uk/2016/04/26/leaf-spring-issue/