Autumn set to be colourful

Choosing the Michaelmas goose, in an 1873 print
Choosing the Michaelmas goose, in an 1873 print

After several cold months and a late summer that 
arrived in September, it can be no surprise that autumn has yet to show its colours.

Though there’s been a trend for trees to fruit a little later each year, autumn 2012 seems set to be later than ever. September’s sunshine has encouraged trees to keep their leaves and produce lots of sugars. This recipe of sunny days and cool nights is ideal for producing vivid leaf colours, so there’s a real prospect of a dazzling autumn display.

The month draws to a close with the last summer flowers blooming alongside those harbingers of autumn, golden rod and michaelmas daisy. These two garden species are well established in the wild, where they’re a welcome source of nectar for bees and butterflies.

The best late food source is less spectacular. Look closely at mature ivy scrambling over a wall or up a tree, and you’ll see a multitude of light green balls. These bud clusters will open into tiny, nectar-rich blooms, before developing into the black berries that are eaten by birds during the bleak days of December and January.


The michaelmas daisy was said to flower in honour of St Michael, the archangel who overcame Lucifer and ejected him from heaven. The feast day of St Michael and All Angels is on September 29.

Michaelmas used to be an important point in the year, one of the old quarter days when rents fell due, magistrates were elected, and servants and farm workers changed employers at hiring fairs. Surplus farm animals were sold at Michaelmas fairs and families gathered for a special dinner.

Though no longer a day of great celebration, Michaelmas is still an important time for selling stock, especially sheep. This is when northern hill farmers sell breeding stock to lowland farmers, who cross the hardy hill sheep with other breeds.

Our forebears didn’t let a special day go by without a good meal. As geese were at their best after feeding in the stubble fields, dish of the day was roast goose stuffed with the season’s new apples. It was served with fresh bread, and gooseberry sauce. As turkey and Christmas go together today, so it was with goose and Michaelmas until around 1900.

According to old lore, St Michael’s feast is a day for predicting the wind. Whichever way it’s blowing on the 29th will be the prevailing direction for the next three months. This is useful because it tells us where our winter weather will be coming from.

An old saying assures us that a fine Michaelmas will “set all in tune.” In other words we’ll have fine weather until Martinmas on November 11.

Brambles are ripening late this year, but tardy bramblers should take care because on Michaelmas Day, “the Devil puts his foot on blackberries.”

It’s said that when St Michael threw Lucifer out of Heaven, the fallen angel landed on earth in the middle of a thorny bramble bush. Old Harry gets his revenge by returning to spoil the fruit on the anniversary of his humiliation. The story has some truth: blackberries become watery after a frost, and clear autumn nights are when the frosts begin.