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Seasonal Fairytrails: #SPRING

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

An outdoor storying activity for both grownups and kids...

"Spring hangs her infant blossoms on the trees, Rock'd in the cradle of the western breeze." -William Cowper

This spring, we want to encourage you to explore the outdoors with stories as your starting point...

Inspired by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris's mission to "conjure back the near-lost magic and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us", Fairytrails is an outdoor storying project designed for everyone - age isn't important - it's all about enjoying the great outdoors and delighting in the sharing of stories! It's totally free and we're hoping that it will help you connect with the wild outside in a new and unique way.

In this little seasonal blog post, we'll direct you to seasonal stories and link these to some of the fascinating folklore associated with the trees, plants and creatures you encounter outside during spring. We'll also include some handy natural navigation tips and link you up with a little bit of bushcraft and plant lore!

So what are we waiting for? Let's take a quick look at the calendar...

In times past, the start of spring was considered to be at the time of the vernal equinox (coming from the Latin word 'ver' means 'spring') . Apparently, the vernal equinox is the only day of the year when an egg can be stood on its end - try it but don't despair if it doesn't work - your egg can instead be enjoyed for breakfast and you can refer it as a symbol of springtime and newly hatched beginnings! This equinox is basically when when the sun is exactly above the equator and day and night are of equal length. This year it falls on 9.37am on the 20th March (thank you Lia Leendertz and your seasonal almanac!)

Just to confuse things, spring was also said to begin on the 14th February by a bunch of medieval birdwatchers - who may have had a tip off from Slovenia where they say that day is when birds begin to mate and the plants start growing .

Anyway - we can certainly be sure that spring is pretty much here and if you're still not sure then just take a trip to your local 'wild outside' and get yourself an eyeful of the green stuff coming up!

So what we look for when we walk this spring...?

1. Wild garlic

This deliciously stinky plant also known as ‘bear garlic’ after the belief that bears used to eat it to get their strength back after a long winter sleep! People also used to plant it for good luck in cottage thatch (which apparently also freaked out fairies and kept them at bay!)

In magic and ritual, wild garlic is said to scare away venomous creatures and one particularly curious custom told athletes to chew the plant if they wanted to win the race / battle! In early Christian traditions, the flowers were used to decorate churches on the feast day of St Alphege (19 April) which must have been quite overwhelming!

Stories to explore / prompt exploring?

In the Brothers Grimm's retelling of Rapunzel, "a woman was standing by the window and saw a bed which was planted with the most beautiful rampion; Rapunzel" which she so desires to eat...and eat it she does when her husband climbs over the wall and collects some from the wicked witch's garden!

'Rampion' is not wild garlic (despite wild garlic being referred to as 'ramps' in America and 'ramsons' here in the UK.) It's actually a different type of wild salad (see here for more info). But simply because I ended up down the rabbit hole above when I set about investigating it - we'll go for the story of Rapunzel!

  • Click here to listen to Storynory's version (for kids.)

  • Or, here to read the Brothers Grimm version.

What next...?

  • Forage for wild garlic (remember to prep yourself well with ID videos and free apps like Flora Incognita) and I'd really recommend following the fabulous Rachel Lambert and trying out her incredible nettle and wild garlic pakora recipe! It goes without saying that you DON'T WANT TO EAT ANYTHING you can't confidently identify!

2. The Ash and the Oak tree...

"Oak before ash, in for a splash

Ash before oak, in for a soak" - Old folk saying

To identify ash and oak, you can either use our Fairytrails map, home-made videos or the free app Flora Incognita .

When you visit these trees, take a peek at their buds and leaves. While the weather predictions drawn from the old folk saying might not necessarily be that reliable overall, the timing of their respective leafings can tell us some interesting things about our weather and our woodlands. Both trees come into leaf about the same time, but the precise timing of the oak tree's leafing is influenced by temperature, while ash trees are more influenced by the hours of daylight. If temperatures in Feb and March are high then oak trees are likely to leaf first; if it stays cold into April then ash will leaf first. So this is an interesting insight into the effect of climate change on our trees and the impact that then has on our woodlands. With warmer springs, oak is starting to get a head start and as these two species compete for canopy space, ash is getting a bum deal (which isn't great because it's already battling against the fungal die-back disease!)

Stories to explore / prompt exploring?

  • The Norse Creation Myth - listen to Dawn Nelson's storytelling about the great ash tree 'Yggdrasil'

  • The Fairy in the Oak - listen to me read Beatrice Potter's short story.

  • The Last Dream of the Old Oak - read Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale.

  • The Fairy from the Oak Tree - watch this Hungarian fairytale.

What next...?

  • Click on the following links for outdoor activities, bushcraft tips, links and podcasts connected to the oak and ash tree! Including how to navigate by the trees and make oak gall ink!

3. Lesser celandine

"There’s a flower that shall be mine, ’tis the little celandine" - Wordsworth

In days past, swallows and celandine were the twin harbingers of spring — and they still are! These little plants respond to the daylight; opening at dawn and closing at dusk, and like all true sun-worshippers, they will hide away before rain! The old Celtic name for them is actually ‘grian’, which means ‘sun’. They are said to 'gladden the heart' and represent the 'joy to come'!

This little plant also has some fab folk names; including' yellow spit', 'nipplewort' and wartwort (the juice when applied is corrosive!) I particularly like the name 'pilewort' which was presumably given to the plant because its roots resemble a bunch of grapes / hemorrhoids!'

According to the Woodland Trust page on celandine, "it was once thought that you could use lesser celandine to predict the weather as they close their petals before raindrops. The leaves are high in vitamin C and have been used to prevent scurvy."

Stories to explore / prompt exploring?

4. Woodpeckers

"If only, if only, " the woodpecker sighs, the bark on the trees was as soft as the skies..."

- Louis Sachar

I've been seeing a lot of these little beauties recently! If you live near me and Victoria Park, you'll also have heard them hammering away of a morning!

These birds are pretty cool, especially in terms of folklore. In Norse mythology they are associated with Thor - perhaps as their hammering can be connected with his hammer "Mjolnir“, and apparently redheaded Thor got the colour from none other than the woodpecker himself!

The Celts believed that when a woodpecker screeched it was going to rain, in Native American mythology the woodpecker is associated with friendship and happiness.

Have you heard of the Native American zodiac? If you were born between June 21th and July 21th then your birth totem is the woodpecker and you are known to be family caretakers and kindhearted!

Stories to explore / prompt exploring?

  • Read the story The Coyote and the Woodpecker here.

What next...?

  • I've found this fantastic BBC Sounds podcast about how woodpeckers have made us smarter! Click here to listen!

5. The Cherry tree

"Loveliest of trees, the cherry now, is hung with bloom along the bough..."

- A. E Houseman, A Shropshire Lad

I agree wholeheartedly with Jo Woolfe in her fantastic book 'Britain's Trees: A Treasury of Traditions, Superstitions, Remedies and Literature", when she says that our cherry trees 'capture the freshness and exhilaration of spring"! We have two types of cherry in the UK - 'wild' and 'bird'. Woolfe goes on to tell us how wild cherry was referred to as 'Hagberry' in Scotland because it was believed to be a witches tree, and that pieces of bark used to be placed at the door of a home to ward away the plague. As for the wild, edible cherry, you don't need to me to tell you how tasty the fruit is!

Stories to explore / prompt exploring?

  • Listen to the ballad 'Babes in the Wood' by Thomas Millington (1595), set in a Norflk woodland where lots of bird cherry grows!

  • Read the Japanese folktale of Grandfather Cherry Blossom.

What next...?

  • Read the Guardian article about the 'Babes in the Wood' ballad.

  • Grownups might like to check out the 'Bartenders Guide to Wild Food Foraging' and try out this cherry blossom cocktail!

Enjoy this little Fairytrail and let us know how you get on! If you're keen for more like this then visit our page on the website - where you'll find more folk and fairytrails, including a Valentine ramble to try out with someone special!

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