Keeping an eye on the oak and ash

Dancing in the street for Helston Flora Day.
Dancing in the street for Helston Flora Day.

by Heather Elvidge

“Oak before ash, sign of a splash. Ash before oak, sign of a soak.” Our forebears used to keep an eye on the oak and ash — usually the last trees to come into leaf — to see which would be first to burst its buds.

The result helped to predict whether the summer would have average rainfall, or whether there’d be a deluge.

Although this saying seems no more useful than flipping a coin, there is something in it. We know now that these trees react differently: rising temperatures spur oak buds to open, while ash tree buds respond more to light levels. If you’d like to test the old saying, find an oak and an ash that are fairly close together.

May is a fickle month for weather. Yes, there is sunshine, but there can also be easterly winds and frosts.

Victorian meteorologist, Alexander Buchan, identified May 9 to 14 as a cold period. He wasn’t the first to notice it; this spell had long been dreaded for the annual cold snap that shrivelled crops and fruit tree blossom. It includes the feast days of the so-called Ice Saints, Mamertus, Pancras, Servatius and Boniface.

Although it may not sound like it, a chill in mid-May is good news. Records show the summer that follows is often a decent one.

More Maydays

In spite of capricious weather, the month is packed with traditional events. In Helston, Cornwall, couples dance in the streets on May 8 to celebrate Furry, or Flora Day.

It’s likely that the custom started as a fair day for the parish church: furry is a dialect term for fair. Today the old name is giving way to the more recent Flora Day.

The four processional dances include one for children, but most famous is the mid-day dance with women in long dresses and their partners in top hats and tails. Spare a thought for the Helston Town Band – by the end of the day its members will have walked 12 miles, playing nothing but the Floral Dance.

If grim weather kept you indoors on May 1 there’s another chance to welcome summer on the 12th. This is Old May Day, a quirk caused by England’s calendar update of 1752. Eleven days were dropped to bring us into line with the Gregorian calendar, a necessary move that didn’t please everyone.

Some communities felt that their seasonal events were happening too early, so they held them on the “old” day. As a result our customs now include Old Christmas Day and Old New Year.

Anyway, some say there’s no May Day without may. The may tree is the whitethorn, or hawthorn, and the mayflower is its gorgeous blossom. Hawthorn rarely flowers for May 1, but come Old May Day it’s usually in full, riotous bloom.

If the evening sky is clear, don’t miss the sight of three glorious planets. Jupiter is below the two main stars of Gemini, low in the west. Higher in the south, Mars in Virgo glowers a fiery orange-red. Saturn in Libra will be at its brightest on May 10; two days later the ringed planet will be near the full moon.