Superstition says that May is an unlucky month

The magic of our native bluebells
The magic of our native bluebells

by Heather Elvidge

At last we’ve had the rain that the ground needed. A shock for us after the warm, dry spell, but plants are shooting up, grass is growing fast and trees are bright with every shade of green.

The last trees to leaf are oak and ash, linked in this saying about summer rain: “Oak before ash, sign of a splash. Ash before oak, sign of a soak.”

The two respond to different things. The oak needs temperatures to rise before leaves and catkins froth from its buds, but it’s increasing daylight that wakes up the ash. This year it was close, with the oak just ahead.

Among the new hawthorn leaves are clusters of white dots; tiny may buds, waiting to open. People used to eat the tender young leaves which they called “bread-and-cheese”. If you want to try them you’ll have to be quick – hawthorn leaves soon become tough.

After the snowy blackthorn bloom, it’s the turn of apples and cherries. Apple blossom is pale pink and white; Japanese cherries bear dazzling pink ruffles. Our native cherry is an elegant tree of woodland edges whose delicate flowers have inspired poets.

Deep in old woods there are pools of blue. Culverkeys, fairy bells, jacinth — bluebells have many old names. To enjoy their violet-blue flowers and heavy, spicy scent, visit Raincliffe Woods, Scarborough; Stray Head Banks, Whitby; or Bridestones Moor, Pickering. Bluebells are a sign of ancient woodland and a protected species, so please don’t pick the flowers or crush the leaves.

In spite of chilly winds, the breeding season is well under way for our birds. Some are sitting tight to keep their eggs warm, while others already have youngsters to feed. It’s a hazardous time. Grey squirrels, cats and rats will take eggs or young, and so will other birds, such as crows, owls and magpies.

Parent birds do their best to hide. Starlings are nesting in the space underneath roof tiles. Greenfinches are in dense evergreens, long-tailed tits in the centre of gorse bushes.

Blackbirds are tucked away in hedges. Robins could be anywhere, from a car engine to a jacket hanging in a shed. Swallows like a ledge in an outhouse or barn; house martins build under eaves. If they are nesting on your property, then folklore says good luck will be yours.

Unlucky month

May is the time for maypoles and other jolly customs, yet it also spawned an odd superstition — any creature born this month would be trouble.

A May-born horse would grow up mean and given to tricks, like lying down in the water while carrying its rider across a stream. Pigs giving birth in May were supposed to eat their own litters. May-born kittens were often drowned, because May cats wouldn’t kill mice or rats, but would bring home live adders and toads instead. The bad luck extended to babies born in May, who were said to be weak and less likely to thrive.

May was also an unlucky month to be wed. Despite this, people often chose it for their wedding because later on there’d be too much to do. In the days when most British people worked on the land, the busiest months were yet to come.