Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ne'er cast a clout....

...till May is out. So the saying goes.

It's one of the oldest ones in the book - but there is a certain amount of debate as to what exactly it means.

The clouting bit is clear enough: it's all to do with warm clothing. A 'clout' is an olde-Englishe word for 'cloth' - so 'casting' (throwing) a 'clout' (cloth, or coat) means taking off your coat.

So you might interpret it as warning you against thinking that just because there's a spate of warm weather going on early in the year, you can go ahead and act like it's summer: chances are we've got more cold weather on the way and that coat will be going back on.

In gardening terms, this means you can't be absolutely sure there won't yet be a late frost - even if it is 25°C, hasn't rained in weeks and everyone's heading like lemmings to the seaside.

But what about the 'May is out' bit? Some say it means you shouldn't lower your guard (or your horticultural fleece) until the beginning of June. But, it has also been pointed out, it could refer to the old word for hawthorn - still known as 'may' by my mum, who used to eat the leaves when she were a nipper. She called it 'bread and cheese', but don't try it - it's horrible.

Well guess what.

This is the may in my hedgerow: it opened its pure white flowers over the Easter weekend and is now 'out' in the outest way it is possible to be.

So to continue my selfless pursuit of research and truth in the services of English etymology: this is by way of marking your card. If there is no further frost from this point forward, I think we can safely say that 'may' in the saying refers to the hawthorn.

If however I have been entirely duped and bamboozled and my new potatoes - now already at the earthing-up stage and about as vulnerable to frost as it's possible to be - are clobbered to black slime by a perfectly normal May frost, I think we can probably conclude that the May in question is the month.

Actually, for completeness, I could do with some fellow researchers a bit further north: is there anyone not quite as close to the south coast as I am with may in blossom at the moment? Let me know and we'll see if you get caught short by a late frost too. Citizen science - it ain't just the Natural History Museum at it, you know.

Oh, and I hope you all had a very happy Easter, by the way!

7 comments:

hillwards said...

A mile or so inland from the severn estuary in South Wales and the may is beginning to billow through the hedgerows around us! So pretty. One little patch of flowers has come out in our own scraggly stretch of mature hedge, and the hawthorn tree that stands sentry at the bottom corner of the garden is just beginning to come into flower, though it is very exposed here.
Our early potatoes have thrust foliage up eagerly towards all this sun, swift earthing up still leaving them rather close to the surface, so similarly we hope Jack Frost has left these shores for the foreseeable future!

Sara

DD said...

Very interesting post. I've always taken it to mean we shouldn't lower our guard where frost's are concerned until at least the middle of May. As a result I still have seedlings on my windowsill which are now frankly teenagers, as I don't want to run the risk of losing them in a late frost! You might be right though about the hawthorn. I seem to remember someone saying this to me before as well. let's just keep our fingers crossed though!

The Constant Gardener said...

Ah Hillwards - you've just extended the range a couple of hours north of here. Let me know if those new potato tops stay safe!

DD: I have just the same dilemma when it comes to seedlings. There are always a few which end up gangly and awkward while I play safe... still, I'm thinking now is the time to kick them out of the house and let them go it alone. They've got to stand on their own two feet (one stalk?) some time, you know :D

gnman said...

Here in the bleak north country (Shropshire actually) we've got may blossom a-plenty, but also had a sharp frost 2 nights ago which has stung quite a lot of the newly emerged foliage in the garden. So my vote goes to may being the month, not the tree!

Janet/Plantaliscious said...

There is hawthorn blossom in our local woods, but not yet up at the allotment site. We are a little north of Bristol, but higher and therefore colder. One lot of potatoes earthed up, the other still vulnerable. Would love to believe there will be no more frost, but will not be risking tomatoes or squashes outside just yet. Am aiming for mid May, mainly because of the space crisis.

The Constant Gardener said...

Ah - I think maybe the Shropshire case has it. Anywhere which has may blossom out yet plants getting blackened by frost proves it's the month not the blossom - thanks GNman!

Janet - mid-May is my usual date too for tentatively sticking a toe in the water, so to speak. Tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers etc all safely tucked up inside still, may blossom notwithstanding, and will be there for the next two weeks!

VP said...

I've also decided to adopt this phrase with reference to things which might have died over the winter.

I was convinced my olive tree was a goner, but noticed some fresh green shoots right at the base of the tree yesterday :)

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