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A close-up of hawthorn blossom against a blue abstract background.

May: the month of our pagan roots

By
Extract | 15 minute read
Flower-crowned girls, green and beribboned men, hobby horses... and don't forget the first of the strawberries

1 May Day

1 Beltane (pagan celebration)

7 Early May bank holiday

7 7th–9th: Rogationtide/beating the bounds

9 Liberation Day (local holiday, Guernsey and Jersey)

10 Ascension Day

16 First day of Ramadan (Muslim month of prayer and fasting)

20 Shavuot (Jewish Festival of Weeks)

20 Whitsun

22 22nd–26th: Chelsea Flower Show

28 Spring bank holiday

 

May is a month when our pagan roots poke above the surface a little more determinedly than usual. May Day, once called Beltane, is a festival we can’t seem to resist celebrating, and there still exist rich traditions involving flower-crowned girls, green and beribboned men, hobby horses and more, up and down the country. Perhaps it is down to the irresistible nature of this moment in the year: early May is when the slow and halting progress from winter to summer finally becomes a stampede, and fresh green leaves and white blossom break out all over. Why wouldn’t we celebrate?

The month is possibly named after the Greek goddess Maia, associated with fertility, the land, and growth. More prosaically the Anglo-Saxons called it Thrimilci, the month when cows were eating the abundant new grass and could be milked three times a day. Hawthorn, known as mayflower, is the dominant and abundant flower of the month, filling the countryside with a white froth, and a sure sign that finally, from time to time, clouts can be cast.

 

THE SKY

Moon phases

3rd quarter – 2nd May

New moon – 8th May

1st quarter – 17th May

Full moon – 24th May

 

In the night sky this month

6th &7th Eta Aquarids meteor shower produces about 40 meteors an hour at its peak, radiating from the constellation Aquarius. The waning moon will block the fainter tracks.

9th Jupiter is at opposition, and so is at its largest and brightest tonight, but good for weeks either side of this date. Tonight its highest point (when it is most easily seen) will be 22 degrees above the southern horizon at 1 a.m.

17th Close approach of moon with Venus tonight, 18 degrees above the western horizon from 10 p.m.

27th Close approach of moon with Jupiter tonight, from 10.30 p.m., 17 degrees above the south-eastern horizon.

 

Constellation of the month – Leo

This is a good month in which to view Leo: look to the south at around 11 p.m. and you may pick out the distinctive asterism the Sickle, which makes up the lion’s head.

Alternatively you can find Leo by following the ‘pointer stars’ in the Big Dipper (see March constellation) in the opposite direction to the North Star. Denebola, the lion’s tail star and the second brightest star in the constellation, was known by Persian astronomers as the ‘weather changer’: when it becomes visible in autumn the weather will cool, and when it leaves the night sky in late spring, warm weather is on its way. Regulus is the brightest star in Leo, and if you look at it through binoculars on a clear night you can see that it is actually a double star.

 

WEATHER

May’s weather is fickle and changeable: a glorious premonition of true summer for a spell, followed quickly by a chilly blanket of cloud. This is because the prevailing westerly airflow over north-west Europe is at its weakest in May, leaving cold airstreams from the east to move in.

Temperatures rise this month and growth is irresistible, as evidenced by the explosion of green in the countryside, but this is also the month of the cold snap and the late frost, and although these are relatively rare in the south, gardeners in the north in particular are not safely out of the woods until the end of the month. Dramatic thunderstorms peak in June, July and August, but May is the next most thunderous month, and hailstorms are not uncommon, as anyone who has attempted to build a leaf-perfect Chelsea Flower Show garden will attest.

Average temperatures (°c):  London 14, Glasgow 11

Average sunshine hours per day: London 6, Glasgow 6

Average days rainfall: London 15, Glasgow 19

Average rainfall total (mm): London 50, Glasgow 60

Day length

During the course of May, day length increases by: 1 hour and 27 minutes, to 16 hours and 17 minutes (London)

1 hour and 46 minutes, to 17 hours and 7 minutes (Glasgow)

 

THE SEA

Average sea temperature

Orkney: 9.2°c

Scarborough: 9.8°c

Blackpool: 11°c

Brighton: 11.4°c

Penzance: 12°c

Spring and neap tides

The spring tide is the most extreme tide of the month, with the highest rises and falls, and the neap tide is the least extreme, with the smallest. Exact timings vary around the coast, but expect each around the following dates:

Spring tides:

1st–2nd, 16th–17th and 30th–31st

Neap tides:

9th–10th and 23rd–24th

Wild swimming season commences

If you are hard as nails you may have been swimming in the sea and rivers all winter and early spring, but for most of us this is the time when we start to be tempted in by warmer weather. The sea around our coasts never reaches anything approaching warm, struggling to get above 17°c even in September, its warmest month, and so a swim at any time of year will be a bracing cold-water experience. But there is a gradual temperature increase from now on that makes a summer swim less challenging than a winter one. Cold is shocking to the body and despite everyone believing that diving in and getting it over with is the best way, it is not the safest, especially for delicate hearts. Let your body get used to the cold, taking a full two minutes to submerge completely. After only two or three sea or river dips you will find yourself remarkably acclimatised and mildly addicted.

 

THE GARDEN

Planting by the moon

As the moon goes through its phases, it moves the water on earth to create the tides, and many believe, not unreasonably, that it has other hidden but equally consequential effects on the natural world. If it can move the oceans perhaps it can move ground water too, and even the small amounts of water trapped in each plant. Planting by the moon is a method of gardening that taps into and utilises the rising and falling of water with the moon’s phases. When the moon is new and not visible in the sky, the strength of its gravitational pull on the earth is at its weakest. This is considered a good time to sow plants that develop below ground (root crops) and that are slow to germinate, because soil moisture is steadily increasing.

Faster-germinating plants that crop above ground should be sown in the run up to full moon, as this is when the pull is at its strongest and so groundwater will be at its highest. The full moon is also the best time to harvest crops for immediate use, as they are at their juiciest. After full moon the moon’s pull starts to wane and groundwater drops, and these are good times for pruning (to minimise sap loss), and harvesting for storage (skins are drier and tougher). If you would like to give the system a try, you will find the relevant dates and jobs in the garden section of each month of this almanac.

3rd quarter to new moon: 8th–15th. Prune. Harvest for storage. Fertilise and mulch the soil.

New moon to 1st quarter: 15th–22nd. Sow crops that develop below ground. Dig the soil.

1st quarter to full moon: 22nd–29th. Sow crops that develop above ground. Plant seedlings and young plants.

Full moon to 3rd quarter: 29th–31st. Harvest crops for immediate eating. Harvest fruit.

Jobs in the garden

• Move pots of tulips into prime positions by your front door and flanking garden steps. Apply a liquid feed to any bulbs that have finished flowering, and remove spent flower heads, to encourage more flowers next year.

• Track down small plants of cut flower chrysanthemums from specialist growers and plant them out for late summer and autumn bunches.

• Thin out direct-sown seedlings in the vegetable patch, lifting and discarding seedlings that have been sown too thick, to give crops space to fill out. Do this in a couple of stages, some taken now, some in a couple of weeks, in case of slug attacks or other calamities.

Glut of the month – asparagus

Asparagus is up! Enjoy this brief and delicious crop while it lasts.

• You will want to eat most of your asparagus simply steamed or very lightly boiled for just a few minutes. They love butter and eggs. Toss in butter, or dip into soft-boiled eggs like soldiers, or top with a hollandaise sauce.

• Asparagus takes particularly well to roasting, useful for when the split-second timing of steaming would be tricky. Toss in olive oil and salt and roast for 20 minutes, then pile on top of a bed of braised lentils and buffalo mozzarella.

• Try it raw, shaved into fine slivers, in a salad with new peas, mangetout, radish and Little Gem lettuce, topped with shavings of Parmesan.

Preparing baby artichokes

When artichokes are tiny and tender, as they are this month, much of the fuss of preparing them is avoided, as they have not yet developed the ‘choke’ that needs to be removed when they grow larger. To prepare your baby artichokes you will need a bowl of water with the juice of half a lemon squeezed into it, a serrated knife and a sharp paring knife.

Scrub the outside of the artichokes first under running water. Shorten the stem to about 2½ cm and use the serrated knife to slice off the top third of stiff, spiky, dark green ‘petals’. Peel away a couple of layers of hard green outer ‘petals’ until the soft and paler green and yellow ones beneath are revealed, and then pare away any rough leftover pieces and the skin from the stem. Slice the artichoke in half lengthways and drop into the lemon water to prevent browning. When you have prepared a few, drop them into boiling water and boil for around 10 minutes or until you can easily pierce the base of the artichoke with a toothpick or knife. Incorporate them into a pasta dish or eat them in a salad with best olive oil and wedges of lemon and salt.

Garden task – deal with slugs

May is the month for planting out seedlings. It is also when slugs are at their most voracious, and can wipe out a whole row of painstakingly nurtured new seedlings in a single night. There is almost no point in growing anything from seed if you are not going to take on the slug menace, so be ready.

There are a number of options available, none of which will work perfectly, so carry out as many as you can: belt and braces. Slug pellets are effective but problematic. Old-fashioned ones based on metaldehyde have been proven dangerous to wildlife, and questions are now being raised around new, supposedly organic, iron phosphate-based pellets, so avoid if possible. Go for good soil first. If plants struggle in hard, poor soil, they will be vulnerable for longer. Dig in compost or well-rotted manure and young plants will romp out of harm’s way.

Slug traps are gruesome but help to reduce numbers. Cut a hole a few centimetres up one side of a plastic milk bottle. ‘Plant’ it shallowly in the ground (leaving a lip so that beetles and other innocents do not wander in) and fill the base with beer. Slugs are attracted to the beer and climb in and drown. Night-time torchlit veg patch raids can be very effective, when slugs are at their most active. Collect them in a bucket and dispose of them as you will. Use plastic collars with lips around larger plants such as courgettes, and sprinkle bran around smaller seedlings. It all sounds like hard work, but this phase will not last forever. Once your seedlings have grown into young plants they become less attractive to slugs and can shrug off a bit of damage. A little vigilance and action now will pay off.

 

KITCHEN

In season

• In the vegetable patch some of the treats of the year are now at their height: asparagus, sorrel, peas, broad beans, radish, chives and chive flowers, and young spinach. Although it is tempting to leave tiny globe artichoke heads to grow bigger, they are at their best when small (and they will quickly produce more).

• Although you may not have produced your own new potatoes yet, they are at the height of their season in the greengrocers.

• Rhubarb is still good and British strawberries start to reach the greengrocers. Apricots arrive from France.

• Crab, sardines, plaice and mackerel are all in season.

Ingredient of the month – green garlic

If you planted your garlic cloves last autumn, you will be harvesting your main crop of garlic for storage in the summer, but you can take a few of the young ‘green’ bulbs now for their fresh, mild flavour. Gardener’s perks.

Pull a bulb up and you will see that your green garlic has not yet split into cloves. It has not even started to form the papery outer skin that makes it ready for storage and so it will not keep. You won’t want to dig too many as it will reduce your final crop, but take a few and try them roasted until caramelised, shaved raw over salads, or gently sautéed and whizzed into a soup with peas.

FESTIVITIES

The May Queen

The countryside in early May is an explosion of green and froth, all fresh, young, burgeoning life. The May Queen is the personification of this moment. She is traditionally young and beautiful, not a child and not quite a woman, but on the cusp. There is an innocence and purity about her crowning but she is not guileless, and just as the perfect white blossom that she wears on her crown will soon be pollinated, so the May Queen is on the verge of her own awakening. This is captured in Tennyson’s melodramatic poem ‘The May Queen’, where our soon-to-be queen at first talks of garlands and white dresses but is soon flirting cruelly, and then pairing up with one of the ‘bolder lads’ she meets on the day. Such flagrant enjoyment of her own beauty and youth cannot go unpunished, and in true Victorian style we fast-forward to our saucy heroine dying of an unnamed illness mysteriously related to her ‘wild and wayward’ ways. That’ll teach her for messing with those shepherd boys.

A less cruel but still problematic fate meets the Queen of the May in the traditional folk song of the same name. Out gathering May blossom, she meets a man who convinces her to sit with him on the mossy green bank – the gentlest possible euphemism. But it’s all OK because the next day he marries her so that ‘the world should have nothing to say’. Lucky girl. The May Queen starts the day as sweet and innocent as the blossom in her crown and ends it, well… a little more fruitful.

The May Queen persists in May Day fairs up and down the country. This is a moment for fun, frolics and petal-strewn mossy green banks. The birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees are all at it. But as the stories make clear, things must soon turn serious, and the real work of the year – the swelling, maturing and reproducing – must begin.

RECIPES

Rhubarb, strawberry and apricot pastry

These three fruits are perfect at the moment; their colours glow when they are roasted together and spread across a bed of honeyed mascarpone.

Ingredients

1 sheet puff pastry

1 egg yolk, beaten

2 stems rhubarb

8 apricots

4 tbsp orange juice

200 g strawberries, hulled

250 g mascarpone cheese

1 tbsp honey

Method

Preheat your oven to 200°c/400°f/gas mark 6. Lay out the pastry sheet on a piece of baking parchment on a baking sheet and brush the edges with water. Fold a narrow margin all the way around to form a rim, and paint it with the egg yolk. Prick the base of the tart all over with a fork. Bake for 15 minutes or until the edges are risen up and brown and the centre sandy-coloured and cooked through. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Chop the rhubarb into 5-cm pieces, halve the apricots and remove their stones, and put all, along with the strawberries and the orange juice, into a bowl. Turn the fruit so all is moistened by the orange juice and tip into a baking tray. Bake for 15–20 minutes, until the apricots and the rhubarb are tender and the juice of the strawberries is running. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Mix the mascarpone and the honey and spread it over the cooled base, then arrange the cooled fruit on top, before pouring over any strawberry-coloured juices.

 

NATURE

Look out for:

• Spectacular sprays of hawthorn blossom in every hedgerow, turning the countryside soft and white. Elder and cow parsley add to the froth.

• Bluebells are in full swing, creating hazy blue carpets across woodland floors.

• Sea cliffs are noisy and busy with seabirds breeding and feeding their young.

• All of the trees are in leaf now, with young, fresh, green growth. Ash is the last to break bud.

• Dandelions flower fat and golden in every crack in every pavement. Daisies are sprinkled liberally across lawns.

• Meadows are colourful and filled with flowers: yellow rattle, buttercup, meadow vetchling, ivy-leaved toadflax, and spotted orchids.

• Verges are full of flower: alongside the cow parsley look for red campion, white dead-nettles and greater stitchwort.

• Watch for Adonis, chalkhill and common blue butterflies.

• Damselflies and dragonflies emerge mid-month from vegetation at the edges of ponds and rivers.

The dawn chorus

The dawn chorus reaches its noisy and joyful peak in May as birds sing their hearts out for mates and territory. At dawn the air is at its stillest, and sound carries well. Birds want to mate and raise their chicks during the warmest months of the year so each morning the male birdsfrantically try to outdo each other. Kicking off as early as 3 a.m., the birds join in in a predictable order. If you find yourself lying awake listening, see if you can identify as follows: blackbirds (mellow, flutelike, but often with a harsh note at the end), robins (a melodious ‘twiddle-ooh, twiddle-eedee’), wrens (a loud warble around five seconds long, ending in a trill), song thrushes (musical and penetrating, with lots of repetition and some grating and chattering sounds), chaffinches (short, fast, rattling song, ending in a flourish) and tree sparrows (incessant cheeps and chirps).