Written by Heather Elvidge
So far, trees and shrubs have stayed sensibly dormant. But as the days grow longer developments in the natural world will quicken pace.
St Matthias’ Day on February 24 is when the sap starts rising, according to folklore. Yet it has to be admitted that old Matty isn’t the most reliable weather prophet. The Met Office cautions that February 24 to 28 is usually a stormy period, so expect the trees to keep on dozing.
Snowdrop flowers are popping up everywhere and the yellow buds of winter aconites can often be seen nearby. These relatives of the buttercup are the first golden flowers of the year, sporting green ruffs under their yellow petals.
Aconites are at their best on a sunny afternoon, as they open their flowers only when the temperature rises above 10C. Until then, the yellow buds stay tightly closed.
On sunny days, watch out for little clouds of winter gnats dancing alongside shrubs and hedges. These hyperactive creatures are males, bouncing like bungee jumpers, which is very impressive if you’re a female gnat.
If the evening is not too cold, you may see one of the year’s first moths on the windowpane or fluttering around an outdoor light. This is the delightfully named Spring Usher, recently emerged from the pupa in which it passes the winter. It won’t eat your clothes – this is a moth of parks and woodland where its dull green caterpillars chomp on oak leaves.
The Spring Usher measures 3.5cms across – just under one and a half inches – and its wings are a mix of browns, greys and whites, with two dark wavy lines across each one. Although it’s an unspectacular moth, it’s a welcome harbinger of spring.
We’re in the second week of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday, the day after Shrove Tuesday.
Originally Lent was a time of strict abstinence inspired by Christ’s 40 days spent fasting in the wilderness. Only one meal was allowed on weekdays, from which meat or dairy products were banned. So no eggs, no cheese, and no animal fat for cooking. Sundays were not fast days though, and fish was allowed on Friday, Saturday and Wednesday.
Spring was a hungry time anyway for medieval folk, the time of ploughing and sowing when winter stores were running out. Lent probably helped them to eke out their meagre supplies.
Giving up foodstuffs during Lent isn’t something many of us do now. However, that could change after recent revelations about processed meat. But the real purpose of Lent is not to purge the diet of dodgy burgers. It’s a time to spring-clean the soul.
From the time it first appeared, in texts from the early eleventh century, “Lenten” was used to describe both the fast and the season of spring. It refers to the lengthening days when light, warmth and greenery are all increasing.
So Lent isn’t about giving up things for the sake of it. Denial can be a spur to take a hard look at ourselves, in the season when nature is renewing. We all develop unhelpful habits without noticing — these Lenten days are perfect for a mental clear-out.