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Country diary: blackthorn winter has begun to loosen its grip

Phil Gates
·2-min read

In The Generation Game, a popular 1970s TV show, winning contestants watched desirable prizes pass by on a conveyor belt, but afterwards only took home those they could remember in 45 seconds. Recalling the pageant of spring flora – a prize for getting through a long winter – sometimes feels like a similar challenge, especially since the floral conveyor belt accelerates as temperatures rise and days lengthen.

The earliest flowers soon fade from memory. When I walked this footpath two weeks ago, yellow star of Bethlehem that bloomed in March was already hidden under an aniseed-scented canopy of sweet cicely foliage. Lesser celandines and violets were reaching their peak, toothwort and butterbur had just shouldered aside last autumn’s decayed leaves, and drifts of wood anemones and ramsons were about to grace the woodland.

Lichen-encrusted winter twigs of blackthorn were primed with tight clusters of flower buds, milky-white pearls, each set in a clasp of green sepals; hedgerow costume jewellery for the season’s annual performance.

Then the wind direction changed. An icy blast from the Arctic brought the botanical conveyor belt to a shuddering halt: celandine petals closed, wood anemones bowed their heads.

This was the phenomenon that the naturalist Gilbert White described so succinctly in his journal entry for 7 April 1773. “The black-thorn begins to blow,” he noted. “This tree usually blossoms while cold N.E. winds blow … this season is called by the country people black-thorn winter.”

Today, after a week of bitterly cold days and searing night frosts, at the midpoint of meteorological spring, blackthorn winter has begun to loosen its grip. Those pearly buds have opened, smothering blackthorn twigs in a froth of blossom. As I watched, downdraughts from hovering bumblebees’ wings dislodged flurries of withered petals, their purpose served, pollination achieved. Soon, insects will search elsewhere for pollen and nectar.

Spring’s brief intermission is over. The conveyor belt has restarted. It’s picking up speed, carrying with it – inexorably into summer – those soon-to-be-memories of hedgerows decked in gean, bird cherry, crab apple, rowan and hawthorn blossom. The game is over far too quickly.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary